N.C. Cobia and Federal Shallow Water Grouper Seasons Reopen on May 1

Jerry D - red grouper 2

Many fishermen along the south Atlantic Coast are looking forward to May 1 – especially fishermen from the Tar Heel State.  Two of the most popular fishing seasons will open then and both saw some changes over the winter.  There wasn’t anything in the changes that will affect the regulations right away, but things may change before their scheduled closings in December.

Most cobia are caught in state waters, either inside the inlets or within 3 miles of the beaches.  Three years ago cobia were managed by NOAA Fisheries and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the season was closed in federal waters (3-200 miles offshore) after several years of estimates that the recreational catch drastically exceeded the allocation.  States were expected to follow the federal closure, but lobbied and were granted state allocations and allowed limited seasons in state waters.

For several years there were arguments that the process used for estimating recreational catches and the stock status isn’t particularly accurate and there was a request to transfer the management of East Coast cobia north of Florida from NOAA Fisheries to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Transferring cobia management is one of several changes that have occurred since the 2018 season closed in December.

Effective March 21, 2019, Atlantic Migratory Group Cobia (GA-NY) are no longer be under the  federal fishery management plan for Coastal Migratory Pelagics managed by NOAA Fisheries.  As most cobia are caught in state waters 0-3 miles offshore, management of cobia has been transferred to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.  Cobia regulations and state allocations are now on the ASMFC website at www.asmfc.org.

North Carolina will now set regulations based on the framework issued by the ASMFC and this doesn’t include any changes for 2019. The N.C. recreational allocation is 236,316 pounds and if it is reached early, the season can be closed by proclamation.  The ASMFC framework includes a 36 inch minimum length (fork length) for recreational catches and a 33 inch minimum length (fork length) for commercial catches. The commercial allocation is 50,000 pounds for all states (GA to NY) combined.

The North Carolina cobia season will open on May 1. The recreational regulations include the 36 inch (fork length) minimum length and private recreational daily limits of 1 cobia per fisherman per day not to exceed 2 cobia per boat during May, then reducing to 1 cobia per boat from June to December.  For hire (charterboat) vessels have the same 36 inch minimum size and may keep 1 cobia per fisherman up to a maximum of 4 cobia per boat.

Cobia are a bycatch for commercial fishermen in other fisheries.  They are allowed two cobia per fisherman, up to a max of six per boat.  The commercial size limit is 33 inches fork length. The commercial season may be closed if it is determined the 50,000 pound allocation has been reached.  More information is available at www.ncdmf.net.

The shallow water grouper complex is a fishery that includes black, gag, scamp, red, red hind, rock hind, coney, graysby, yellowfin and yellowmouth grouper.  These are offshore species off the N.C. coast and are federally managed, but the state follows the federal regulations.  This fishery has an annual spawning closure that begins at midnight on December 31 and ends at midnight on April 30.

The shallow water grouper season reopens at 12:01 A.M. on May 1, with a 3-fish aggregate limit of all the species.  This aggregate may not include more than 1 black and/or gag grouper.  Black and gag grouper have a minimum size of 24 inches total length (tip of lower jaw to end of tail) and the others have a 20 inch total length minimum size. Non-stainless steel circle hooks are required for all grouper species.

Federal fisheries managers have concerns that red grouper are being overfished and the annual catch limit (commercial and recreational) for red grouper was reduced more than 80 percent from 780,000 pounds in 2017 to 139,000 pounds in 2018 and has risen slightly to 150,000 pounds for 2019. This is further divided into 56 percent, or 84,000 pounds, for recreational catches and 44 percent, or 66,000 pounds, for commercial catches.

The season for red grouper closed early in 2018 and will probably close early again in 2019.  The season will close when it is projected the annual catch limit has been reached.  The reduction in the annual catch limit is to allow the species to recover from overfishing. For more information visit http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/sustainable_fisheries/s_atl/sg/2017/red_grouper_framework/index.html

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Capt. Jerry Dilsaver has been fishing since he was a child and writing about fishing, hunting and the outdoors since 1986. He is from Southport-Oak Island, N.C. and continues to live there in semi-retirement. His writing features this area prominently, but he has fished and written about the East Coast from Virginia to Florida, the Gulf Coast, California, Alaska and several of the Great Lakes in the U.S., plus several countries in Central America and several Caribbean Islands. He has been on staff at Carolina Adventure, North Carolina Sportsman and South Carolina Sportsman Magazines and his byline has appeared in several other magazines and newspapers.