Last year, we ran a fea­ture on “The Great Gulf Red Snap­per Train Wreck,” de­scrib­ing what has been, at best, a fish­eries­man­age­ment mess and, at worst, a dis­as­ter. Now I have to won­der if man­age­ment of South­east/mid-At­lantic cobia will ren­der that fish­ery next to run off the rails.

To coastal an­glers and economies for whom sea­sonal cobia fish­ing is of great im­por­tance, echoes of the red snap­per fi­asco are dis­turb­ing:

The Na­tional Marine Fish­eries Ser­vice in­sists an­glers are catch­ing too many cobia.

An­glers say fed­eral harvest data are sus­pect. Cobia have been abun­dant; NMFS ac­knowl­edges the stock is nei­ther over­fished nor is over­fish­ing tak­ing place (though spawn­ing-stock biomass has fallen).

Fric­tion be­tween states is de­vel­op­ing over al­leged in­equities in fish­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties.

NMFS re­cently an­nounced that cobia fish­ing in fed­eral wa­ters from Ge­or­gia north would be closed for all of 2017. (All of Florida is man­aged for its Gulf of Mex­ico stock of cobia, dif­fer­ent from At­lantic stock.) That sounds pretty dra­co­nian for a species ad­mit­tedly not in trou­ble.

But the feds say the clo­sure is nec­es­sary be­cause an­glers caught too many cobia in 2016 (and in 2015). Fed­eral law re­quires such ac­tion to com­pen­sate when an­nual catch lim­its are ex­ceeded.

Yet there has been wide­spread crit­i­cism of NMFS’s abil­ity to col­lect ac­cu­rate harvest data. Even the agency has ac­knowl­edged such short­com­ings as it works to de­velop a new strate­gic plan for data col­lec­tion in its Marine Re­cre­ational In­for­ma­tion Pro­gram.

Ap­par­ently ques­tion­able data make ques­tion­able the ne­ces­sity of a com­plete cobia clo­sure in the minds of many in the re­cre­ational-fish­ing com­mu­nity.

But ge­o­graph­i­cal dif­fer­ences fur­ther com­pli­cate the sit­u­a­tion: Many cobia in North Carolina and Vir­ginia are caught mostly in state wa­ters, whereas most cobia off Ge­or­gia and South Carolina are caught in fed­eral wa­ters ( be­yond 3 miles out).

So when the feds close the fed­eral sea­son, they cut off the op­por­tu­nity for Ge­or­gia and South Carolina an­glers to catch cobia. Not so for an­glers in North Carolina and Vir­ginia, with both states adopt­ing es­sen­tially summer-long cobia sea­sons for 2017. Vir­ginia, for ex­am­ple, will per­mit cobia to be har­vested June 1 through Septem­ber 15, with a one-fish-per-an­gler daily limit and three per ves­sel. Adding re­stric­tions to help con­serve the species, the rules set a 40-inch min­i­mum, al­low­ing only one per boat to ex­ceed 50 inches and for­bid­ding the use of gaffs.

Part of the rea­son for the com­plete fed­eral clo­sure stems from the cobia harvest in state wa­ters, which is likely to ex­ceed any catch that might have been al­lowed in fed­eral wa­ters.

So for some states, it will still be busi­ness as usual, catch­ing cobia all summer, while other states are shut out com­pletely.

In a Fe­bru­ary 14, 2017, let­ter to Roy Crab­tree, the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s south­east re­gional ad­min­is­tra­tor for Fish­eries, Ge­or­gia Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources com­mis­sioner Mark Wil­liams pointed out this in­equity: Clos­ing fed­eral wa­ters to cobia fish­ing is in ef­fect a de facto al­lo­ca­tion of the re­source to North Carolina and Vir­ginia fish­er­men.

In his March 1 re­ply, Crab­tree said: “The fish­ery­man­age­ment plan does not al­low NOAA Fish­eries to open fed­eral wa­ters for At­lantic cobia only off Ge­or­gia. ... Any [such] changes to man­age­ment of At­lantic cobia ... would re­quire an amend­ment to the fish­ery-man­age­ment plan through the South At­lantic Coun­cil and rule-mak­ing process.”

Crab­tree’s re­sponse doesn’t ar­gue Com­mis­sioner Wil­liams’ con­cern, but does sug­gest that the cum­ber­some ma­chin­ery and bureau­cracy of fed­eral fish­eries man­age­ment pre­clude any such so­lu­tion, in the near term at least.

That seems to re­in­force the on­go­ing ef­forts of many re­cre­ational-fish­ing in­ter­ests in the Gulf states to shift man­age­ment of coastal species away from the feds and to the states. But un­like snap­per, cobia are pe­lagic and cross state bound­aries, which could ren­der state-by-state man­age­ment prob­lem­atic. There are no easy an­swers.


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