Recreationally caught AMG cobia. Photo © Eszter Keresztes
Cobia (Rachycentron canadum) are distributed worldwide in tropical and warm-temperature waters. They occur along the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia to Argentina, and are most abundant in U.S. waters from Chesapeake Bay south through the Gulf of Mexico.
Male cobia typically reach sexual maturity by 2 years (generally 2 feet long), while females are sexually mature by 2-3 years (generally 3 feet long). Females grow to be larger than males, and may reach 6 feet and weigh up to 100 pounds. An extended spawning season occurs from late June to mid-August along the Southeastern U.S. and from late summer to early fall in the Gulf. Cobia are broadcast spawners; a single female may spawn many times each season. Cobia make seasonal migrations, wintering in the south and moving north for the summer months. They are drawn to structure to feed and find shelter from predation. Juveniles and adults are often found around live bottom, wrecks, and buoys, as well as flotsam and seaweed mats. Their diet consists primarily of fish and crustaceans.
Enthusiastically pursued by recreational anglers, cobia support recreational fisheries throughout the South Atlantic and into the Mid-Atlantic region. Primary methods include bottom fishing with natural bait as well as sight-casting, which has gained popularity in recent years. The annual recreational harvest of AMG cobia, found along the US Atlantic coast from New York to Georgia, has varied erratically with little trend since 2005, ranging from 328,000 to 1.7 million pounds. In 2017, recreational anglers landed approximately 805,431 pounds of cobia.
The commercial fishery is on a much smaller scale, with the fishery landing 145,562 pounds in 2017. Primarily a bycatch fishery, it has been associated with the snapper/grouper hook and line fishery and troll fisheries for many South Atlantic species, although more directed fisheries have recently developed in some areas. Commercial restrictions are consistent throughout the range, with a two fish per person possession limit, 6 fish vessel limit, and a 33” fork length minimum size limit.
Two cobia stocks are recognized off the US Atlantic coast; the Atlantic Migratory Group (AMG cobia) and the Gulf of Mexico Migratory Group (Gulf cobia), occurring throughout the Gulf of Mexico and extending to Florida’s east coast. The SAFMC manages the Atlantic stock, and is allotted a small portion of the Gulf stock’s allowable catch limit (ACL) to manage the Gulf cobia which extend along the Atlantic coast of Florida. Genetic studies continue to explore appropriate stock boundaries, and a 2018 SEDAR Stock Identification Workshop is using the most recent data available to evaluate stock structure for future assessments.
The 2013 SEDAR stock assessment indicated overfishing was not occurring and neither stock was overfished. ACLs were established as a precautionary measure to prevent the stocks from reaching an overfished status. Despite the stock status, the last assessment showed a general decline in spawning stock biomass since 2002. Since the assessment, recreational harvests have continued to be highly variable and exceeded the ACL (620,000 pounds) in 2015 and 2016. Future overages could lead to the stock becoming overfished. The stock status is expected to be updated by the upcoming SEDAR stock assessment in 2019.
In 2019, the Commission approved Amendment 1 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for Atlantic Migratory Group Cobia (Atlantic cobia). Amendment 1 establishes management measures that transition the FMP from complementary management with the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Councils to sole management by the Commission. Amendment 1 to the FMP was initiated in anticipation of the Councils’ Regulatory Amendment 31 to the Coastal Migratory Pelagics (CMP) FMP, which was approved earlier this year and removed Atlantic cobia from the Councils’ oversight.
Amendment 1 changes several portions of the Commission’s FMP that were previously dependent on the CMP FMP and institutes a long-term strategy for managing in the absence of a federal plan. Several of these changes establish processes for the Commission to carry out management responsibilities previously performed by the South Atlantic Council, including setting of harvest quotas and sector allocations, defining stock status criteria, and recommending management measures to be implemented by NOAA Fisheries in federal waters. Additionally, Amendment 1 transitions responsibilities of monitoring and closing (if necessary) commercial harvest to the Commission.
Moving forward, the Commission will recommend to NOAA Fisheries that fishing in federal waters be regulated according to the state of landing. If a vessel has licenses for multiple states with open seasons, they must follow the most restrictive license’s regulations. If a vessel has licenses for multiple states, only one of which has an open season, they may fish under the regulations of the open state. Regulations resulting from this recommendation would only apply in federal waters. Fishermen would still be required to follow state possession or landing limits in state waters.
Amendment 1 establishes a harvest specification process, which allows the Board to specify a limited set of management measures for up to 3 years. One of the measures that may be set through this process is a coastwide harvest quota. However, until the first specification process occurs, after completion of the ongoing stock in 2020, the current coastwide quota (670,000 pounds) remains in effect.
The Amendment also changes the units used to measure and evaluate the recreational fishery from pounds numbers of fish. To accommodate this change, the recreational harvest quota in pounds (620,000) is converted to numbers (22,142 fish) and allocated among the states, resulting in the following state recreational harvest targets:
States still may set their own seasons and vessel limits to achieve their respective targets.
Finally, Amendment 1 establishes a de minimis status for the commercial sector that exempts states with small commercial harvests from in-season monitoring requirements. States are required to implement measures of Amendment 1 by July 1, 2020.