Let’s Talk Cobia

I am new to the Council staff (I just started on March 13th) and up until very recently, I wasn’t all that clear on the Atlantic (GA-NY) cobia closure. A couple of days ago, I was lucky enough to attend a meeting with the Hilton Head Island Sportfishing Club. Staff from both the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SC DNR) and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council) were present to answer some critical questions. Both agencies managed to not only help clarify the confusion, but to also offer some hope for the future. Want answers to the question, “What now?” Then stay with me.

 

Why the closure happened?

As a federally managed species, cobia is assigned an Annual Catch Limit (ACL). Landings in federal and state waters count toward this ACL. When a species is regulated under a Fishery Management Plan, accountability measures, which are required by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, are used to prevent landings from exceeding the ACL or to mitigate the biological impacts of overages. One Council member described it to me as, “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

The most recent stock assessment, completed in 2012, revealed that Atlantic cobia (GA-NY) were not overfished or experiencing overfishing. That was good news. But in 2015 and 2016, overfishing did occur when the recreational sector exceeded the total stock ACLs in both years.

 

The Numbers:

2015 2016
Recreational ACL: 630,000 lbs Recreational ACL: 620,000 lbs
Recreational Landings: 1,554,394 lbs Recreational Landings: 1,346,193 lbs
Total Stock ACL: 690,000 lbs Total Stock ACL: 670,000 lbs

 

As per the designated accountability measures, the following recreational fishing season was shortened in 2016 in order to account for overages in 2015. Unfortunately, even with the shortened fishing season, landings in 2016 still exceeded the recreational and the stock ACL. As a result, in order to mitigate the effects of overfishing, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced that recreational harvest of Atlantic cobia in federal waters would close in late January 2017. At the Council, our job is to protect the resource AND the many people who pursue it. Unfortunately, in this case, that means eliminating fishing pressure from the recreational sector to reduce potential negative effects on the stock with the hopes of sustaining a viable resource for future years.

 

Why do certain states still get to land cobia? 

Folks from South Carolina and Georgia have had to watch with longing eyes as websites and social media accounts are flooded with photographs of cobia catches in Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia. We know it is frustrating. But let’s talk about why it is happening. And in order to understand, we have to talk about cobia life history and state government.

For starters, the Council manages federal waters off the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and the East coast of Florida. In some cases, like in that of cobia, the Council’s jurisdiction extends to states in the Mid-Atlantic (all the way to New York).  The most recent stock assessment for cobia (SEDAR 28 conducted in 2012) incorporated data that suggested cobia caught and sampled in Florida waters are actually genetically different from those fished from Georgia through New York. The Florida/Georgia line serves as an estimated “boundary” that separates the Atlantic stock and the Gulf stocks of cobia. Since Florida’s cobia are considered to be part of the Gulf stock, landings from the East coast of Florida are counted toward the Gulf ACL. So why might this Florida annexation be a good thing for the other South Atlantic and Mid- Atlantic states? For years, fishermen were frustrated that Florida was able to access cobia earlier in the fishing year, giving Floridians ample opportunity to catch up the ACL before other states have access. Since Florida cobia landings no longer get counted toward the Atlantic cobia ACL, fishermen don’t have to worry about this anymore.

Photo credit: SC DNR/ Wally Jenkins

Anglers in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia can legally land cobia caught in state waters. Try as they might, it is very unlikely that an angler fishing in Georgia’s state waters will return to port with a cobia. They tend to only occur in federal waters off Georgia. South Carolina’s state waters do in fact host Atlantic cobia. But anglers fishing in the Palmetto state cannot legally harvest any. Here’s why. If federal law closes a fishery, South Carolina’s state law mandates that the closure or regulations automatically apply to state waters. It’s not that the federal government has selectively favored one state over the other. It is simply South Carolina state policy. The other states (VA, NC, and GA) have chosen to keep state waters open during the federal closure with state-specific recreational harvest regulations and requirements in place. 

 

Why is the commercial fishery open?

The commercial and recreational sectors are allocated percentages of the total stock ACL. In 2016, the recreational sector was allocated 92% of the ACL for Atlantic cobia, leaving the remaining 8% to commercial fishermen. The commercial sector was projected to reach their ACL in 2016 so the National Marine Fisheries Service closed commercial harvest in December. If commercial fishermen exceed their ACL in future years, they too will undergo accountability measures and may experience a closure. The commercial fishery is not the problem. We have to figure out how to decrease recreational landings in state waters, which brings me to, “what now?”

 

What now?

The Council recognized that the Atlantic cobia fishery might be at risk and put together an amendment in 2016 which proposed bag limits and increased minimum size. The proposed rule that would implement the new measures was published and is currently stuck in a federal regulatory freeze. If the rule is finalized and put into effect, these new measures could help to reduce landings in federal waters and slow the rate of harvest.  But, truthfully, there is a bigger issue at hand. We mentioned before that the Atlantic cobia stock stretches from Georgia to New York. Again, that means the ACL includes fish landed along the coasts of all of those states, both in state AND federal waters. The landings occurring in state waters alone are exceeding the Atlantic cobia ACL. So here lies the more complicated problem. If cobia landings in state waters continue at this rate, the ACL will continue to be met or exceeded, and federal waters will have to remain closed. Changes need to be made at a state level in order for recreational anglers to again have access to the Atlantic cobia fishery in federal waters.

 

The states are making efforts to decrease landings in state waters. But more will need to be done in order to better manage the fishery. This is where the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an interstate compact ratified to help manage shared migratory species, can step in. Folks at the ASMFC are drafting plans to get all Atlantic states to abide by a region wide cobia fishery management plan. And this is where I found hope for the future.

 

The interstate cobia plan will go to public hearings later this year and you and your fellow fishermen have the opportunity to speak up for your businesses, families, and communities. If you are from Virginia and North Carolina, this is your chance to protect a shared resource for future generations. If you are from Georgia or South Carolina, this is an opportunity for you to again access the resources off your coasts. But before we can all reap the benefits of a rebounded stock, you must show up and share your message.

Photo credit: Guess Hoo Charters

Like you, I am an avid fisherman. And although I haven’t spent a life in pursuit of species like cobia, I am concerned about the closure. To be frank, everyone in the fisheries community, whether they be biologists, commercial fishermen, for-hire guides, or private recreational anglers, is concerned about the economic impacts of such a closure. The Council members and staff recognize your frustrations and concerns.

 

I hope this lengthy explanation has proven to be helpful. If you have any questions, please contact me at Cameron.rhodes@safmc.net.