The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council has approved new, more restrictive regulations for cobia in 2017, hoping to prevent an early closure of the season as took place this year. 

New regulations, approved at the Council's mid-September meeting in Myrtle Beach, S.C., would reduce the recreational bag limit from two to one fish per day, implement a vessel limit of six fish and raise the minimum size to 36 inches, fork length. A commercial trip limit of two fish per person, with no more than six fish per vessel allowed, would also be established.

State marine fisheries bodies will have the opportunity to change regulations for state waters (inside of three miles) to match the new federal regulations.

The recreational cobia season in federal waters from the Georgia-Florida border to New York closed on June 20 this year, as required by overages of the annual recreational catch limit in 2015. SAFMC hopes the new regulations will keep fishermen from reaching the annual catch limits, or at least significantly delay their being reached, which would result in a season closure.

"The Council considered numerous comments received during public hearings held in August, as well as comments received during a Q&A session held in May, public input during its June meeting, written comments and comments from fishermen attending this week's meeting," said Dr. Michelle Duval, chair of the SAFMC and a biologist with the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries. "We heard from fishermen about the negative economic impacts of the Atlantic cobia closure, particularly off the coasts of North Carolina and Virginia. We've worked diligently, looking at various combinations of changes to bag limits, vessel limits and size limits, to help maximize fishing opportunities and to have new regulations in place in time for next year's season.”

Faced with the June 20 closure last year, marine fisheries panels in North Carolina and Virginia opted to keep cobia season open longer in state waters — within three miles of the beach — while attempting to keep catches down with more-restrictive creel limits. Virginia anglers were allowed to keep one cobia per day, or two per boat, with a 40-inch size minimum and only one fish 50 inches or longer per day with the season extended to Aug. 30. North Carolina extended its season in state waters through Sept. 30, with a one-fish daily creel limit for pier and surf fishermen, with a 37-inch size minimum. Charter boats were allowed to keep four fish per day, with the same size minimum. In addition, recreational fishermen in boats were allowed to keep two cobia per day, but only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

South Carolina, managing to protect a sub-species of cobia that spawn in the Port Royal Sound, Broad River and St. Helena Sound, closed its recreational season between May 1-31 south of Jeremy Inlet on Edisto Island, and it followed the federal June 20 closure in all state waters. It instituted a one-fish daily creel limit in waters south of Jeremy Inlet, and a two-fish daily creel limit in all other state waters.

Duval said SAFMC will form a new committee on cobia to “allow for additional input and expertise from fishermen on cobia management issues as we move forward.” The Council will also work with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to develop a complementary plan to allow additional flexibility in landings.

The proposed regulations now go to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce for final approval before implementation in 2017.