South Carolina acts to conserve unique cobia fishery

New creel limits, catch-and-release-only season established for southern part of South Carolina

 

Columbia, S.C. – Last week, state legislators enacted conservation measures for cobia – South Carolina’s newest gamefish species – in response to the rapidly growing popularity of the fishery, which has been the subject of tremendous interest in the lowcountry. A one fish per person, three fish per boat daily creel limit, along with a catch-and-release-only season in the month of May have been established for a southern cobia management zone; essentially state waters south of Jeremy Inlet at Edisto Island.

The new regulations are proactive measures for a species that comes into nearshore waters and coastal rivers such as Port Royal Sound and the Broad River to spawn, a trait that makes the breeding population particularly vulnerable to high fishing pressure. Coastal Conservation Association South Carolina (CCA SC) and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) have both long called for additional conservation measures for cobia to protect the future of the species and the fishery.

“With the progression of meaningful management steps taken over the years, including establishing gamefish status in 2012 and passage of these new measures, state fishery managers and legislators are clearly demonstrating their commitment to place the health of the cobia stock high on its priority list, and we applaud them for that,” said Mike Able, CCA SC Government Relations Chairman. “While establishing time and area regulations is a first for fisheries management in South Carolina waters, the unique characteristics of cobia and its vulnerability in well-known, nearshore nursery areas warrants such proactive measures.”

While found worldwide in tropical, sub-tropical, and temperate waters, extensive DNA work by the SCDNR indicates that fish return to the same location in South Carolina, particularly Port Royal Sound, each year between late April and June to spawn. It has been found that Port Royal cobia and offshore cobia come from two different genetic stocks, with the offshore fish likely spawning offshore. The annual appearance of the Port Royal cobia in South Carolina presents a unique opportunity for anglers, leading to a rise in the fishery’s popularity and providing an economic boost for many coastal communities. However, drastic change appears to be on the horizon for the fishery.

In developments completely unrelated to South Carolina’s recent management actions, in April the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council announced that the cobia fishery in federal waters of the South Atlantic would be closed to harvest beginning June 20 through the remainder of the year. Coast-wide catches of cobia unexpectedly exceeded federal limits by a considerable margin in 2015, prompting the reaction by federal managers to close the season early this year. However, federal managers are not sure if the harvest numbers indicate a problem with the fishery since an assessment of cobia has not been conducted since 2011. Given the biology of cobia, few, if any, of the fish alive today were around when federal fishery managers last checked the status of the stock, creating a frustrating situation for recreational anglers.

“CCA SC will continue to advocate for reasonable management actions to support a species before deep and often drastic draconian measures are required,” said Able. “Thankfully our partners at SCDNR are committed to that conservation philosophy, too.”

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