It won’t be as long or wide open as in past years, but the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission voted last week in Wilmington to open a cobia season for 2017, allowing anglers to fish from May 1 to Aug. 1 in state waters with creel and size minimums.
With cobia fishing in federal waters (3 miles or farther from the beach) closed for 2017 by federal fisheries officials over catches the past two years that have exceeded recreational quotas, the Commission voted for the four-month season with a one-fish daily creel limit, up to a four-fish creel limit for boats with four anglers or more, and a minimum-size requirement of 36 inches fork length). In addition, the Commission will require that all cobia caught and brought to the dock be taken to an N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries certified weigh station to be weighed, measured and logged in.
NCDMF’s website lists 86 weigh stations, but not all ports from which boats leave to fish for cobia have certified weigh stations, and many areas have only one.
Cobia season closed Jan. 24 in federal waters north of the Florida-Georgia line, not to reopen until Jan. 1, 2018, to try and keep the annual harvest within its quota. In 2015, recreational fishermen landed 1.55 million pounds of cobia, with the quota having been set at 630,000 pounds. Last year, despite the season being closed in federal waters from June 20 to Dec. 31, recreational anglers landed 1.33 million pounds. There was a two-week period in which Virginia fishermen landed more than the quota for the entire region.
In 2015, the recreational cobia allocation was 630,000 pounds and recreational fishermen landed 1,554,394 pounds, which was approximately 250 percent of the 2015 allocation. The allocation was reduced to 620,000 pounds for 2016 and cobia season closed in federal waters from June 20 to December 31, yet recreational anglers still landed 1,336,012 pounds of cobia, or slightly more than double the allocation. There was a two week period when Virginia fishermen landed more than the allocation for the entire region.
Federal regulations require this overcatch be paid back, and NOAA Fisheries took the first step by closing the recreational season in federal waters. However, many fishermen, especially charter operators, question the numbers. Many captains said they have never been surveyed, so they wonder where the catch information is being generated.
"There are five captains on my dock that specialize in cobia fishing, and none of us were checked or surveyed last year,” said Karl Helmkamp of Fistful Sportfishing in Manteo. “I hear the same from guys I know in other marinas. They know where we are, and we're regular and easy to find, so if they aren't checking us, where are these numbers coming from?"
"The continuing restrictions on cobia fishing will hurt charter operators as it is going to make it difficult to get new business. Many times, it is five or six people getting together for their first charter and having to decide which four of them get to keep fish makes it tough. I think many of our regular clients will return because they already know the excitement of catching cobia and how good they are to eat, but these restrictions are going to make it tough to recruit new business.”
Joey VanDyke of Finance Sportfishing in Hatteras, had a different perspective on the Commission’s announcement.
"I look at it at a different perspective of at least we can still keep cobia and we can still run charters," he said. "It might defer or deter a few people, but we still have cobia season, which is what we want.
"The biggest problem I see is going to be getting the reporting program to work." VanDyke said. "A lot of people are in desolate areas in eastern North Carolina and will not be able to get to a place to report, which will still make for inaccurate data that they are requesting and wanting."