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North Carolina Department of Environment Quality

NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Marine Fisheries - Cobia

Marine Fisheries

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COBIA, Rachycentron canadum

8-point rule

Cobia

Life History

Cobia (Rachycentron canadum) is a fast growing and moderately lived (less than 10 years) fish that inhabits nearshore coastal waters from New York to Northern Mexico. They migrate in the spring and fall as water temperatures change from inshore and offshore habitats, as well as up and down the coasts. Spawning occurs in the spring months around inlets and in high salinity estuarine waters. Larval fish settle in the estuaries along the southeast and mid-Atlantic coasts and utilize them as a nursery area. Cobia can grow to as large as 14 inches in their first year of life and move offshore as the water temperatures cool in the fall. Most cobia are mature by age 2 and at 31 inches in length. Females can spawn multiple times in a season (batch spawners) and can produce millions of eggs in a single year. Cobia can grow as large as 100 pounds but are typically encountered by fisherman in the 25 to 40 pound range. Feeding typically occurs on the bottom where they consume fish and crabs, but they have been known to consume prey as large as turtles. Cobia are structure oriented and can be found around channel markers, sea walls and jetties, and larger marine animals such as leatherback sea turtles and rays.

Fisheries

The primary commercial gear used to harvest cobia has changed over time. Historically, cobia was mostly landed out of the haul seine fishery. With the adoption of the management measures from the first South Atlantic Fishery Management Council Fishery Management Plan in 1983, which established a 33 inch minimum size limit, the primary gear that landed cobia changed to the troll and handline gears which are more efficient at catching larger fish. In recent years, the primary gear in the commercial fishery has been the anchored large mesh gill net which can account for up to half of the total commercial landings in a given year. Because the possession limit is two fish and up to six per vessel for the commercial sector, it is considered a bycatch fishery. Total landings tend to be consistent from year to year. Average landings over the past 10 years are 35,000 pounds and typically range from 20,000 to 50,000 pounds (Figure 1). The coastwide commercial fishery is managed with a 50,000 pound annual catch limit with North Carolina landing most of the fish. Overages in the catch limit are deducted the following year and excessive overages can result in a closed or partial season.

Figure 1

Recreational fishing for cobia in North Carolina has become increasingly popular over the past 15 years. Historically, cobia were mostly targeted from an anchored vessel fishing natural baits on the bottom. However, in the past decade, more fishermen are outfitting their boats with towers to gain a higher vantage point and are actively searching for cobia on the surface. These fishermen tend to use artificial baits, like buck tails and swim baits, to cast directly at fish. Harvest from recreational fishermen is variable from year to year but typically exceeds the commercial harvest tenfold. The average recreational landings for cobia over the past 10 years is 285,000 pounds but has varied from a low of 82,000 pounds to a high of 695,000 pounds. This trend is also evident in the number of fish harvested and released from the fishery (Figure 2). Recreational releases of cobia almost tripled in 2017, due in most part to a reduction in possession limit to one fish and an increase in size limit to 36 inches. Figure 2

Management

Cobia is included in the North Carolina Fishery Management Plan for Interjurisdictional Fisheries, which defers to the Joint Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s fishery management plan for compliance requirements. The Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic Fishery Management Councils approved the Coastal Migratory Pelagics Fishery Management Plan in 1983, and the species is currently managed under Framework Amendment 4 of that plan. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission approved the Interstate Fisheries Management Plan for Atlantic Migratory Group Cobia in 2017 which complements the Council plan. The goal of both fishery management plans is to maximize harvest from the stock while considering the biology of the species and ensuring regulations are fair and equitable and the fishery resources are used efficiently.

Framework Amendment 4 to the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic Fishery Management Councils fishery management plan maintains the stock boundary, annual catch limits, and accountability measures established in Amendment 20b and implements a higher size limit and lower possession limit for the recreational fishery. The stock boundary for the Atlantic group of cobia is set at the Florida-Georgia line and an annual catch limit to 670,000 pounds for the commercial and recreational fisheries. This annual catch limit is divided between the commercial and recreational sectors with the commercial limit set to 50,000 pounds and the recreational limit set to 620,000 pounds for states from Georgia through New York. Accountability measures require the National Marine Fisheries Service to take actions to reduce the harvest of cobia if the annual catch limits are exceeded, regardless of whether the harvest occurs in state waters or federal waters (ocean waters 3 to 200 miles). The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Interstate Fisheries Management Plan for Atlantic Migratory Group Cobia complements all of the Federal Fishery Management Plan measures, establishes harvest limits for each state, and allows the states to establish their own seasons and vessel limits. States must submit their season and vessel limits for review by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to ensure that the combination of season and vessel limit will constrain their harvest to the harvest limit averaged over the following three-year period. The North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission proposed management measures were approved by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and implemented for the 2018 – 2020 fishing season (Proclamation FF-10-2018).

Stock Overview

  • Stock Assessment: Yes
  • Terminal Year of Last Assessment: 2011
    • Overfishing: No
    • Overfished: No

Cobia were last assessed in 2013 using data through 2011. Results of this assessment indicate that the cobia stock is at a healthy level and that removals due to fishing are not impacting the viability of the stock. However, spawning stock biomass (the total weight of mature females within a population of fish) was in decline with the final year of the assessment approaching the minimum level for a fishery to be considered viable. In 2015 and 2016, the total annual catch limit for Atlantic cobia was exceeded by over 200-percent both years. Annual catch limits are based on the allowable biological catch (maximum pounds of fish that can be removed from a population that does not affect the reproductive potential of the stock to replenish itself) estimated from the assessment and, for cobia, are equal to the overfishing limit used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations to determine if a stock is overfished. Even though Atlantic cobia have not been classified as overfished, the excessive harvest from 2015 and 2016 is troublesome.

Research Needs

Research is needed to evaluate movement and stock boundaries by developing a tagging program and increasing genetic sampling, better characterize release mortality in the recreational fishery, increase trip level reporting for the recreational and for-hire sectors, develop a fishery independent sampling program for the species, and evaluate the life history of cobia in North Carolina waters.

Links

Management Agencies

North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries
South Atlantic Fishery Management Council
Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

Fishery Management Plans Amendments, Revisions and Supplements

South Atlantic Fishery Management Council
Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

Stock Assessment Reports

Southeast Data, Assessment and Review 28 Stock Assessment Report – South Atlantic Cobia

Contacts

For more information, contact Steve Poland at Steve.Poland@ncdenr.gov or 252-808-8159
Cobia
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N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries • 3441 Arendell Street • Morehead City, NC 28557 • 252-726-7021 or 800-682-2632

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