Cobia Season Closed in Federal Waters
Capt. Jerry Dilsaver
On January 24, the 2017 recreational fishing cobia season closed in federal waters from the Florida/Georgia state line northwards. The season is not scheduled to reopen in 2017. The 2018 Cobia season will open on January 1, 2018.
This closure is for federal waters, which begin 3 miles offshore and continue to 200 miles offshore. This closure does not include state waters, which begin inland and continue to 3 miles off the beaches. However, some states may follow the closure, as Georgia and South Carolina did when cobia season closed in federal waters in June 2016. Other states may adjust their seasons and limits in state waters as North Carolina and Virginia did during the federal waters closure in 2016.
NOAA Fisheries (www.nmfs.noaa.gov) cited two years when the Northern East Coast States (Georgia to New York) significantly exceeded the cobia recreational catch limit established by NOAA Fisheries and the reason for closing the season. In 2015, the recreational cobia allocation was 630,000 pounds and recreational fishermen landed 1,554,394 pound, which is 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. Georgia, South Carolina and the states north of Virginia mirrored the federal closure, while North Carolina and Virginia formulated their own plans that included reduced daily limits and larger minimum sizes to keep their cobia seasons open longer. Even with the closures and restrictions, recreational anglers still landed 1,336,012 pounds of cobia, or slightly more than double the allocation, during 2016.
Federal fisheries regulations require this over catch be paid back and NOAA Fisheries has taken the first step by closing the recreational cobia season in federal waters, which are those waters from 3 to 200 miles offshore. There is a formula to average catches over three years to determine catch reductions. The allocation for 2017 will be reduced, but the actual amount will not be announced until later, probably during March.
Several fishermen asked how there can be an allocation if the season is closed? The allocation is for all waters in the geographic area from the Florida/Georgia state line northwards and recreational cobia seasons remain open in state waters. Cobia caught in state waters count towards the allocation, which explains how it could exceed the limit so greatly during 2016 when the season closed early in federal waters.
Many fishermen question the accuracy of the reporting and estimation programs used to determine the recreational catch. This is being disputed at the federal level. The Recreational Fishing Alliance (www.joinrfa.org) has started a petition on www.change.org that will be sent to the Department of Commerce and the President of the United States requesting an emergency action to reopen cobia season to recreational anglers. The petition is based on the 2006-2007 renewal of the Magnusson-Stevens Act mandating the data sources be updated to be accurate and that mandate not being met, which allows continued gross errors in the MRIP (Marine Recreational Information Program) and MRFSS (Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey) data used to establish and regulate the cobia fishery.
The individual states in the affected area will make their own determinations on what to do regarding the federal waters cobia closure. Some may comply exactly, as they did last year, but expectation are that at least several of the states will have limited cobia seasons during 2017. During the 2016 cobia closure in federal waters, North Carolina and Virginia opted to reduce limits and raise minimum lengths to keep their state seasons open through the summer. Those regulations were temporary and expired at the end of 2016.
Speculation has run rampant as cobia are a very important fish for charter fishermen, tackle shop operators, and many fishermen like to catch and eat them. North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission has stated a presentation and discussion on cobia will be added to the already busy agenda for their February meeting, currently scheduled for February 15-17 at the Wilmington Hilton Riverfront in Wilmington. At this time, the final agenda is not available, but it should be soon at www.ncdmf.net under the Public Meetings header. There is some talk about rearranging the schedule from the normal MFC meeting schedule because of having two very important topics. It would be wise to check the agenda and schedule when making plans to attend.
Nothing is official yet, but N.C. Marine Fisheries Commissioner Chuck Laughridge was at the Carolina Outdoor Expo in Greenville over last weekend and was questioned by many fishermen, plus fielded numerous phone calls. Laughridge said he supports reducing the limit to one cobia per person a day, with a maximum of 4 per boat, for both private and charter boats. The season may also have to end in August or September. Laughridge said he believes this, or something close to it, will get the support of the MFC members and be implemented by proclamation for the 2017 North Carolina season.
It is guaranteed the February Marine Fisheries Commission meeting will be busy and have a lot of heated public comments and animated discussions on the Shrimp Trawling Petition and what to do about the cobia season. Once the decisions are made, I’ll report them here.