Gulf Council recommends lower cobia limits
The Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Board (Gulf Council) voted last week to lower the daily bag limit and imposed a per vessel limit on cobia, a coastal migratory pelagic species that anglers in the north of the Gulf have rarely landed in recent years.
The annual spring run of cobias on their migration from South Florida to the Western Gulf was a treat that Alabama fishermen once enjoyed, but it’s now more of a memory.
At its meeting last week in Orange Beach, the Gulf Council voted to reduce the daily possession limit to one fish per person and to create a limit of two fish per vessel for the recreational and commercial sectors.
The Gulf Group cobia stock is divided into two areas, the Gulf area and the east coast area of ââFlorida, where the Gulf and South Atlantic cobia mix. The Gulf Council has approved a stock allocation of 63 percent to the Gulf area and 37 percent to the East Coast Florida area (previously it was 64 percent and 36 percent to the Florida areas. Florida Gulf and East Coast, respectively). The minimum height of 36 inches in fork length has not been changed for the Gulf area, but the minimum size limit for the Florida east coast area has been increased from 33 to 36 inches in length to the fork. Daily possession of the Florida East Coast area and vessel limits will be the same as the Gulf area.
The cobia stock is jointly managed by the Gulf Council and the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Board, which will need to agree to management changes before they are submitted to the Secretary of Trade for approval.
Kevin Anson, chief biologist with the Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) and Alabama representative on the Gulf Council, said a recent update on a cobia stock assessment prompted the action. The assessment indicates that the stock is overfished but not overfished.
“Overfishing means that the overall fish population is below a level that allows maximum sustainable harvests on an ongoing basis,” said Anson. âBut the current annual cobia fishing mortality rate is too high, which over time, if left unchecked, could lead to overfishing. This is why it is considered to be overfished. It means we haven’t crossed the cliff, so to speak. However, the cobia has not yet responded to other management actions, so additional action needs to be taken. “
One of the fastest growing fish in the Gulf, the cobia can reach a fork length of 36 inches in less than three years, said Ryan Rindone of Gulf Council technical staff during the public hearing of last week on the cobia. Rindone’s presentation indicated that a one-fish limit would reduce the recreational sector catch in the Gulf area by 1.2 percent, and the two-boat limit would reduce the recreational sector catch by 9 percent.
Anson said the Gulf Council cited several reasons for not increasing the minimum size in the Gulf area.
âJust a few years ago, we increased the size limit in the Gulf from 33 to 36 inches,â said Anson. âThere hasn’t been enough data compiled to see if there has been a positive impact. For the record, we know that the population is much lower than it was 10-15 years ago. If you increase the size, you will keep more females as they are generally larger than the males, and the larger fish are breeding size females. Since this is a joint amendment, we want to try to have consistent regulations even though we are two different councils. For consistent management in Florida, I think it would be beneficial if the size limit was 36 inches in all of their waters. “
Rindone’s presentation indicated that increasing the minimum size from 33 to 36 inches in the Florida east coast area would result in a 33.9 percent reduction in recreational harvest.
Off the northern Gulf coast, the spring ritual of following cobia migration through coastal waters has all but disappeared.
âWhat we’re hearing locally is that there has been a sharp drop in the cobia since around 2010,â Anson said. âIt’s steadily declining. We continue to hear from our fishermen that this is not where it was in the not so distant past.
Anson also said that NOAA Fisheries is using a new survey methodology to determine recreational fishing effort. The new method is called the Marine Recreation Information Program – Fishing Effort Survey (MRIP-FES), which ended the previous landline telephone survey of randomly selected coastal households and implemented a mail survey of randomly selected coastal and inland postal addresses. The MRIP-FES method indicates a significant increase in fishing effort compared to the previous campaign.
“MRIP-FES showed almost double the landings for most of the well-known species compared to the old telephone methodology,” he said. âDue to the increased potential for increased volatility in recreational landings and the extended period of reduced catches, an annual catch target (ACT) has been proposed to be used in management to act as a buffer to ensure that we do not exceed not the annual catch limit.
Typically, an ACT is set below the catch limit and, if followed, will trigger the fishery to close earlier than if the annual catch limit is used.
Anson said if the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Board agrees with the actions of the Gulf Council, the amendment could be sent to the Secretary of Commerce for approval after review by the Southeast Regional Office. from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and a brief public comment period. Until this action is finalized, the Gulf area will operate under current quotas, size and catch limits. Cobia season is currently open year round. If the harvest were to reach the annual catch limit, the season would be closed for the remainder of the year.
âIf the recommended actions are approved by the Secretary of Commerce, the biggest impact for our fishermen will be a smaller catch limit of one fish per person and the limit of two fishing boats,â he said. “The change was made to stay within the annual catch limit, to limit the harvest to a level that promotes a faster and more positive rebuilding schedule.”
In another action, the Gulf Council recommended a substantial increase in catch limits for red grouper, although this will have little effect on anglers who fish in the waters off Alabama.
âAbout 99% of red groupers are caught off Florida,â Anson said. âWe used to catch them with some regularity, albeit low, in the 90s and 2000s. Now I would consider them rare to rare off Alabama. Our catch may be a few thousand pounds, but it’s usually in a year that we’ve had some sort of tropical system, tropical storm or hurricane, that caused the fish to move with the current and out. meet in our waters. We don’t have the juvenile habitat to support red grouper populations. The storms push the fish towards us.
The Gulf Council also discussed the dolphin and shark depredation issues that fishermen often encounter. Dolphins, a federally protected species, are known to track private pleasure and rental boats and pick up any small fish released. Anglers also face increased shark predation when hooked fish are attacked by sharks and the angler coils a mutilated fish.
Anson said highly migratory species officials at NOAA Fisheries made a presentation on known depredation issues for a report as directed by the US Congress.
“Congress requested the NMFS to report on the state of data collection, the scale of the problem and potential solutions to address dolphin and shark depredation in the South Atlantic and Gulf coastal fisheries. “said Anson.
As part of the Red Snapper Reporting System, aka Snapper Check, fishermen in Alabama were asked about dolphin and shark sightings, depredation and entanglement of fishing gear during surveys of boat docks. over the past two years.
âIf the fishermen had an interaction, we ask how many fish were taken by the dolphins and sharks from their lines; how many fish were eaten after being discarded; and if there was a tangle in their equipment, âAnson said. âWe included these questions in the dockside survey because our impression is that there is not a lot of information on the extent of depredation in these two groups of species. We offered to share this information with the NMFS in order to provide information for possible inclusion in their report to Congress. “
Anson said research is underway to see if the acoustic devices could be effective in reducing interactions with dolphins while minimizing damage to the animal. The Gulf Council has no responsibility for the management of sharks. Federal law governing fisheries management in federal waters directs the NMFS to manage sharks independently of the Council process. Anson said the Council had asked the NMFS for more frequent shark assessment updates, but changing the current management responsibility “would literally take an act of Congress.”
David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered the great outdoors of Alabama for 25 years. The former outside editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.