The N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission voted in late February to reduce the daily creel limit for cobia from two fish to one in state waters, and fisheries officials are hoping to find more ways to delay a federal closure of the season that could come as soon as June 15.

Rereational fishermen caught almost a million pounds over their annual catch limit of 630,000 pounds in Atlantic Ocean waters north of the Florida-Georgia line last year, according to NOAA Fisheries, and federal regulations mandates a reduction in harvest this year.`

Dr. Louis Daniel, director of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, hopes that the creel-limit reduction, and perhaps an increase in the minimum size could allow North Carolina fishermen to have their season extended. States have an understanding with NOAA Fisheries and the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (SAFMC) that measures adopted to reduce state-by-state catches could result in a longer 2016 season.

At its Feb. 17-19 meeting in Wrightsville Beach, the Commission voted 7-0, with Sammy Corbett, the chairman, abstaining, to lower the daily creel limit from two fish to one, effective Feb. 27. The NCDMF has asked the ASFMC how long raising the size minimum from 32 to 36 or 40 inches might extend the season.

Dr. Michelle Duval of NCDMF, the chair of the SAFMC, said, “NOAA Fisheries’ hands are tied as far as the closure. The Magnusson-Stevens Act requires the season be closed to prevent another overage, but because the cobia fishery has not been classified as overfished, there will not be a payback measure. That’s a little bit of good news, and there is a little more. If the 2016 catch limit has not been reached when the season closes, they can reopen the season.” 

Several charter captains on the Outer Banks, which has the biggest cobia fishery along North Carolina’s coast, were pleased by the Commission’s action but still worried about the effects of a closure on their businesses.

Aaron Kelly of Rock Solid Fishing in Nags Head said, “I’ve already got 44 trips on my books for cobia through the end of June. It will be a business disaster to have to call those folks and tell them the season will be closed. We don’t mind reducing the catch if it will help, but it’s tough to face a closure on a species that isn’t being overfished.”

Karl Helmkamp of Fistful Sportfishing in Hags Head can’t imagine that reductions in the creel limit and increases in the size minimum won’t have a big effect on the length of the season.

 “We agree with lowering the limit to a single fish per person, increasing the minimum size or even establishing a boat limit to keep the season going as long as we can,” Helmkamp said. “I built my business on catching cobia, and it would really suffer. A few folks might still come if it is only catch-and-release, but my numbers will drop. 

“They told us at the (Commission) meeting that cutting the limit in half would only extend the season a few days, but how can that be? If you reduce the limit by half each day, it seems like the season could be twice as long. The bottom line is, we need to do whatever we can to keep the season open as long as possible.”

Duval said that South Carolina has pending legislation to reduce its creel limit from three to one fish and close the season through the primary spawning month, May, in its southernmost waters, which have that state’s biggest cobia run. The rest of South Carolina will follow the federal guidelines of a 2 cobia per person limit.

Georgia already has a creel limit of two cobia per day, while Virginia has a limit of one cobia, but if the season closes in mid-June, few, if any, cobia will reach Virginia waters while the season is open.

The SAFMC first discussed the cobia issue at its December 2015 meeting and asked for directions on how to be proactive with federal mandates in place.