TALLAHASSEE — Florida may take stopgap action because of concerns about a decline in the cobia fish population in the state's northwestern Gulf of Mexico waters.
And state conservation officials hope other Gulf Coast states follow suit to protect the federally managed species.
The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in a meeting Monday in Orlando that focused heavily on fishery issues, backed a draft proposal that would reduce the number of cobia that can be caught per day in Gulf waters north of the Collier-Monroe County line. The measure, which will return before the commission in September, would also increase a minimum size limit.
“I think this is pretty much where you need to be,” said Chris Phillips, a charter-boat operator from Pensacola. “I wanted a closure, to just kind of boost us and really get going. But it sounds like this is the right move.”
The change would be in place until a Gulf-wide assessment is undertaken in a couple of years to determine if more restrictive measures are necessary.
“Is it possible all the Panhandle fish have gone to Central Florida and are just hanging out there?” said Commission Chairman Brian Yablonski. “It sounds like we have abundance in one area and a dearth of fish in the other.”
The commission acted after accounts from western Panhandle anglers that the cobia stock has declined since a 2013 federal assessment of the fish.
The 2013 study didn't indicate the stock was overfished or undergoing overfishing.
But while waiting for the next federal assessments — scheduled for late 2018 for the Atlantic Ocean and 2019 for the Gulf of Mexico — Florida's conservation agency has heard that the stock is in decline in areas.
Comments commission officials received at five workshops and an online webinar, particularly from people from Escambia to Franklin counties in the Panhandle, indicated a need for action based on declines seen in recent years.
“In this area, stakeholders agreed that the cobia fishery has been poor in recent years; however, there was not a consensus on the underlying cause,” according to a commission report. “Many stakeholders believed that the cause was a significant decline in the stock. Others believed that changes in weather patterns and recent warmer spring water temperatures have influenced cobia migration patterns and that the cobia have simply not come nearshore in large numbers in the past few years.”
The commission also reported there has been an increase in demand for cobia on Florida's Atlantic coast.
Whatever the cause, the commission at its April meeting heard calls — particularly from people in the Panhandle — to either close harvesting of cobia for one to four years or to prohibit the commercial sale of the fish.
“They're really, really concerned in the Panhandle,” said Melissa Recks, a Division of Marine Fisheries Management section leader for the commission.
Any closure proposal, however, does not have support from throughout the Gulf Coast.