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.
TO COASTAL ANGLERS AND ECONOMIES FOR WHOM SEASONAL COBIA FISHING IS OF GREAT IMPORTANCE, ECHOES OF THE GULF RED SNAPPER FIASCO ARE DISTURBING.