DNR looking to protect ‘Mecca’ of cobia fishery

The Parris Island Rip in the Broad River is a top spot for cobia in the Beaufort-Hilton Head area.

The “Mecca” of cobia fishing in South Carolina is in trouble.

For years, anglers from the Charleston area have made the pilgrimage to Beaufort County to fish for cobia in the Broad River, Port Royal Sound and other adjacent waters.

Sure, cobia can be caught at the reefs and buoys out of Charleston, but there’s something special about the short trek to the south. Some local fishing guides even block out the prime fishing time so their clients can sample the renowned fishery. South Carolina’s state record, 92 pounds 10 ounces, was caught near Hilton Head in 2009.

The cobia that come from these waters are genetically unique, a different population from the fish found in the coastal waters off Charleston, different from cobia caught off North Carolina, different from the ones caught in the Chesapeake Bay. Cobia return to this area year after year to spawn. They move into the estuary when the water temperature reaches 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, usually in May, and remain into June to spawn.

The same thing happens in the Chesapeake, and Dr. Mike Denson, director of the Marine Resources Research Institute at Ford Johnson, said he suspects it also happens in areas in between where high salinity estuaries exist.

“People are harvesting them faster than they can be replaced. Once it’s fished out and it’s gone, it’s unlikely that it will be replaced by other fish,” Denson said.

Five or six years ago, the population of spawning-size cobia (20 inches for males, 33 inches for females, which is the current minimum size limit) in this region numbered approximately 100,000.

“We have done some estimates of the population size and it has decreased by almost 16 percent a year, down to maybe 20,000 fish at most,” Denson said.

Denson said SCDNR believes that the cobia catch from these waters needs to be reduced to a minimum of 50 percent to give the population a chance to rebound. The recommendations would not affect the fishery in federal waters. Current regulations allow an angler to keep two cobia that measure a minimum of 33 inches fork length per day.

According to the survey, DNR staff recommends achieving the 50-percent reduction in catch by imposing a bag limit of one cobia per person per day and either a change in size limit or a seasonal period of catch and release only.

They are asking anglers for preferences on the following options:

Minimum size limit of 40-inch fork length

Slot limit of 33 to 39 inches fork length

Three-week catch and release period during May

The final portion of the survey reads: “This option would allow the inshore cobia stock to begin rebuilding naturally over a period of six years while continuing to provide the opportunities to fish for and harvest cobia. A more aggressive approach to rebuilding this stock, using catch and release only, would offer the potential to rebuild more quickly and with less risk to the stock. Would you favor or oppose an approach more aggressive than the minimum 50 percent reduction being explored by DNR staff?”

“Everybody pretty much is of the opinion that you need to protect the fishery,” Denson said.

So take some time and fill out the survey. It’s a fishery that needs and deserves our input.

If you haven’t received a survey, you can fill one out online at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources website (dnr.sc.gov).