By Peter Vankevich
For the first time in his 48 years visiting Ocracoke, Doran Quigg was not able to pursue his passion for cobia fishing.
Hailing from Julian, Pa., Quigg has always loved fishing for just one species–cobia, which he said are the best for catching and eating. Steaks from cobia are akin to swordfish.
Resembling sharks, cobia can get quite large–from 30 to the largest record pounds of 172–and he fondly recalled several years ago hooking his largest ever, a 52-pounder that took about 90 minutes to land.
This spring, he got a call from his good fishing buddy, Charlie Mason of Charlottesville, Va., who owns a home on the island, announcing that the Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) in May decided to limit the season for recreational cobia fishing to three days a week–Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.
“I don’t mind a limit of one or so per day,” Quigg noted about the new regs. “It is the limited days that I find so frustrating.” If cobia anglers for whatever reason can’t get out to fish on a Monday, Wednesday or Saturday, they are out of luck and must fish for something else.
Mason who owns a house here with this wife, Marci, noted that most rental houses turn over Saturdays and Sundays.
“I’m concerned about the impact on the island economy,” he said. “If this system continues next year, visitors may opt to go elsewhere for their summer vacations.”
Mason, who has been fishing on Ocracoke for 34 years, questioned how recreational fishing is contributing to overfishing and not charter or commercial fishing.
“How did the federal government get the numbers that the fish have been overfished since we don’t report cobia that we catch?” Mason asked. “Do recreational fishermen take more than charter boats and commercial fishermen?”
Calculating recreational fishing statistics is not an exact science.
According to the DMF, estimates on recreational fishing harvests come through broad-based intercept surveys, where port agents talk to fishermen on beaches, at piers or boat ramps and through mail surveys to license holders.
The DMF’s report of June 21 said coastal recreational fishermen hooked more fish in 2015 than in 2014, landing an estimated 10.2 million fish to the docks in 2015–an increase of 6.8 percent over 2014.
This also was the highest cobia harvest since 2013, and the DMF maintains that recreational fishing constitutes the bulk of cobia harvests.
The change in the regulations is part of a complicated compromise among several stakeholders and led the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to ban cobia banned in federal waters (beginning three miles from the coast) on June 20. Those now caught in the Gulf Stream must be released.
However, the state decided this year to continue limited cobia fishing within the North Carolina boundaries, a decision supported by fishing organizations.
This limited-days restriction does not apply to commercial fishermen, who harvest cobia only as a by-catch from pound nets, nor to licensed charter boats.
Personal recreational boats until September 30 are allowed to keep up to two cobia per day, and charter boats can catch only four, said Ernest Doshier, captain of the Gecko.
Minimum size for cobia in state waters is 37 inches, and citation size starts at 40 pounds.
Cobia caught during the other days of the week must be released, and all cobia fishing in federal waters ended June 20.
Cobia migrate north from in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream in late winter often following rays, turtles and sharks to feed on whatever is left behind. When inshore waters warm up in late May and early June, cobia swim from the warm off-shore waters through Ocracoke Inlet to spawn in the Pamico Sound.
Cobia can also be caught surfcasting from beaches and piers, but Quigg and Mason prefer to be on the Sound on Mason’s boat, the “Hoose Boat.”
Both say the best location for boat fishing Wallace’s Channel with depths of 20 to 30 feet near Portsmouth Island, a few miles from Ocracoke.
Although Quigg and his wife Marilyn love Ocracoke, they may reconsider returning next year if he won’t be able to fish for his beloved cobia.
This particular season was difficult for his annual visit due to the heavy rains and high winds that hit the region, curtailing his fishing opportunities even more.
This year, Mason hooked one cobia and Quigg none, noting glumly that they caught about 14 skates.
“I love Ocracoke,” Quigg said. “But the highlights of our visits centers around my passion for cobia fishing.”
Nonetheless, anglers have the opportunity in the summer months to catch other species in the ocean in-shore waters, Doshier said.
“There still are a good number of mahi-mahi and a few wahoos,” he said. Bottom-fishing is good now for trigger fish and vermillion snapper.
Doshier noted that sparse catches of any fish around the island may be due to the low numbers this year of bait fish, such as silver sides and menhaden.
The following is a recent press release (Jul. 1, 2016) from NC Division of Marine Fisheries:
MOREHEAD CITY – The stock status of most coastal fish did not change in the 2016 Stock Status Report, released today by the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries. Only one species was reclassified from the 2015 report.
Summer flounder moved from “viable” to “concern.” The change was based on a 2015 National Marine Fisheries Service Northeast Fisheries Science Center benchmark stock assessment for U.S. waters north of Cape Hatteras. The assessment indicated the stock was not overfished but overfishing was occurring.
As a result of the stock assessment, federal fisheries authorities lowered the allowable biological catch by 29 percent, which lowered the state-by-state commercial quotas proportionately. North Carolina receives the highest commercial quota share at 27.4 percent.
The division annually classifies the status of important marine finfish, shellfish, shrimp and crabs as viable, recovering, concern, depleted or unknown. Definitions of these categories can be found at http://portal.ncdenr.org/web/mf/stock-status-categories-and-definitions.
The annual classifications are based on biological and statistical data from the prior year and serve as a barometer of the overall health of the state’s fishery resources. They are used to prioritize development of state fishery management plans.
New this year, the online table that summarizes the report includes information about which fisheries management authorities manage the stock in parenthesis under each species name.
The complete 2016 Stock Status Report can be found on the division’s website at: http://portal.ncdenr.org/web/mf/stock-status-reports.