Fishermen express concerns over cobia fishery

Tina Harbuck
About 35 fishermen turned out for Monday's public workshop on the Gulf cobia presented by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at the Destin Community Center. [TINA HARBUCK/THE LOG]

Increase the size limit, decrease the bag limit, but please don’t close the cobia fishery.

That was the sentiment of the 35 or so fishermen gathered at the Destin Community Center Monday night at a Gulf cobia public workshop presented by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The meeting Monday was just one of five workshops that the FWC is holding throughout the state this month concerning the cobia fishery.

Krista Shipley, FWC biological administrator, said they were here because FWC staff has heard concerns related to the cobia fishery in recent years, “primarily from those in the panhandle.”

Shipley said there was a stock assessment done in 2013 and that the “data shows no concern yet.”

However, those gathered at the meeting clearly had concerns.

“I’ve been doing it for 20 years and we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have concerns,” said Capt. Chris Wagner of the Full Pull. “Everything I have seen and fished for has declined over the years.

“Let’s try to get ahead of it so we don’t have a knee-jerk reaction to close it,” he added.

Cobia fishing takes place along the panhandle from about mid-March through the first week of May. Anglers sight fish for these fish just off the beach along the Emerald Coast.

“It’s an amazing thing … just seeing them,” Wagner said. “We hope to protect what we’ve got.”

Kerry Veach, a local realtor and avid fisherman, agreed with Wagner.

“We’ve seen a rapid decline in the numbers of fish … something has to be done,” Veach said.

Veach suggested a size limit increase to 40 inches and a catch limit decrease to two per boat.

Currently, the recreational limit in state waters is 33 inches minimum size, one fish per person per day with a maximum of six per vessel per day.

In federal waters the limit is 33 inches minimum size, and a two fish per person per day.

Eddie Morgan of Harbor Docks and chairman of one of the largest cobia tournaments on the Gulf Coast, the Cobia World Championships, said there has to be a lot of variables in the decline of the cobia, not just the pressure of the fishermen.

He said he has a hard time believing that fishing five to six weeks a year for a third of a day is wiping out a species.

He recalled some of the best cobia fishing was in years when hurricanes blew through the area.

“I love it … and I’m going to do it forever,” Morgan said.

And the most important thing for him is that his children are able to experience the joy he had in fishing and catching cobia.

Thomas Norville also felt that weather patterns have played a part in the migratory patterns of the cobia.

“The weather pattern is different,” Norville said, noting the warm winter we had. “When we’ve had cold winters we’ve had more fish in the spring.”

As for Capt. Rusty Gilbert of the Mary Lou, he feels the cobia is making a comeback.

“I saw more small fish this year than I have since the oil spill,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert said he thinks the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico killed off a couple of generations of cobia eggs.

“The small fish are coming back. I think we need to give it time before we cut it,” said Gilbert, who’s been cobia fishing this area since the ‘70s.

“It’s always in cycles. I think we should give it a few more years before we do anything. Ya’ll just wait,” he added.

According to the FWC biologist, the cobia grows rapidly during the first two years. Females grow faster and live longer than the males.

The females begin maturing around age 2 (34-37 inches) and most mature by age 3 (39-41 inches), according to the FWC report. And the lifespan in the Gulf of Mexico for males in nine years (55 inches) and females 11 years (65 inches).

Capt. Scott Robson of the Phoenix suggested a slot size for the cobia, “So we don’t kill the big ones that are breeding.”

His suggestion was a slot size of 33 to 45 inches with a “trophy tag” for one big fish a year.

Capt. Curt Gwin of the Only Way said he would like to see more scientific tagging of the fish so they could gauge where they are going.

“We all agree something is going on,” Gwin said.

The FWC will gather comments and information from all the workshops and the staff expects to present a draft rule at the July meeting in Orlando. A final public hearing would follow in September or December. Any rule changes would become effective prior to spring 2018.