N.C. COAST | New catch limits have taken effect in North Carolina coastal waters to protect a sport fish that’s popularity is tied to both its fighting prowess and its taste on the table.
But the new rules could put the state in noncompliance with federal regulators that have adopted a total closure of the cobia fishery. The move also goes against the recommendations from state fisheries professionals, who had recommended closing cobia fishing in state waters on June 20 — the same day the ban on catching the fish takes effect in federal waters north of the Georgia-Florida border.
That decision to close the fishery until Jan. 1 was taken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) after anglers last year blew past an annual catch limit for the fish that — along with tuna — are the main draw for charter boat customers.
State waters extend 3 miles from shore, while federal jurisdiction extends from there out to 200 miles.
Cobia, a solitary fish that prefers warm Atlantic water, can grow up to 6 feet and 100 pounds. In 2014 they made North Carolina’s commercial fishermen a modest $87,931, but they are a favorite for sport-fishermen who want a challenging catch. That popularity yields profitable trips for charter boat captains.
Catch limits are different for commercial and recreational fishermen; for 2015, NOAA’s South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) set the recreational limit at 630,000 pounds for the mid-Atlantic area.
Last year, that region caught 1.54 million pounds of cobia — 244 percent of the limit, according to NOAA’s Marine Recreational Information Program. Commercial fishermen did not catch over their limit of 50,000 pounds.
SAFMC data shows spawning-age cobia declined 53 percent over the last two decades, and federal regulators said that if the closure fails to lower catch numbers, 2017’s cobia season could be even shorter than this year’s.
Those kind of statements didn’t make North Carolina’s recreational and charter fishermen happy — sentiments they made clear to state fishery officials.
But the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission regulations that took effect this week do severely limit the size and bag limits for fishermen and the number of days that recreational anglers can fish for cobia.
This week through the end of September, charter boats can fish every day with a four-fish limit per boat, with each fish measuring at least 37 inches. Beach and pier anglers also can fish every day, with one 37-inch minimum fish per person per day.
Recreational private boaters, however, will be able to keep fish only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. The limit will be two fish of at least 37 inches per boat.
The new state rules also close the season in state waters on Sept. 30.