Impending cobia run spawns concern, resentment among local fishermen

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Impending cobia run spawns concern, resentment among local fishermen

By GRANT MARTIN
gmartin@islandpacket.com
Published Saturday, March 31, 2012   |  934 Words  |  

Dave Fleming calls himself a pretty easygoing guy.

Decades of fishing have inured the Hilton Head Island charter boat captain to frustrations those in different jobs -- ones less dictated by tides, weather and sheer luck -- might find overwhelming.

But when the topic of conversation turns to cobia, his laid-back demeanor gives way to passion.

"People are just being unbelievably greedy and shortsighted," he says. "That's all there is to it."

Fleming thinks cobia -- the tasty game fish presently swimming up the Gulf Stream current on an annual pilgrimage to spawn in Beaufort County waters -- are inadequately protected by state and federal laws.

Many of his fellow fishermen disagree.

"There's no other issue that divides us like this," he says.

Perhaps that's because much is at stake. Their size and flavorful meat make cobia one of the most commercially valuable of any fish caught in local waters, according to other guides and restaurateurs. And many fishermen profit from their illegal sale.

Fishing's an inherently competitive business, but Fleming says each year's cobia run typically brings out the worst in his peers.

He pauses, searching for the right analogy, as the wind around his boat slip at Palmetto Bay Marina blows through his sun-bleached hair.

"It's like the Wild, Wild West out here," he says.

TURNING A PROFITFleming's Wild West analogy might not apply to every angler who pursues cobia this time of year, but state officials say this much is clear: There aren't enough sheriffs in town.

Budget cuts have reduced the number of wildlife-enforcement officers statewide, and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources has just three agents assigned to Beaufort County, according to agency spokesman Henry Stackhouse.

He added that DNR agents enforce the law by checking hauls at boat landings and through random checks on the water, but it's become more difficult to monitor activity with a smaller staff.

Because of that, it's easy for fishermen to catch their limit -- two cobia per person per day -- and illegally sell them to restaurants, which pay $8 to $10 a pound, Fleming says.

Fishermen are required to have a DNR-issued wholesale license to do that, but Fleming says that law is often broken, especially by amateurs. That license costs $100 and is only available to commercial fishermen.

"It's kind of an unspoken thing that's gone on between restaurants and cobia fishermen for the last 15 years or so," he said. "But over the last seven or eight years, it's really taken off, because there's so much money to be made."

Cobia's profitability is driven by a nationwide trend of chefs looking for fresh local ingredients, according to Tonya Desalve of Benny Hudson Seafood on Hilton Head.

Its taste doesn't hurt, either.

"They're fantastic," Desalve said. "To me, it's almost like a grouper, but maybe a little bit meatier and more buttery."

Desalve said many restaurants have arrangements with local anglers, who stand to turn a considerable profit from a day's haul.

"It's just the way it's always been done," she said, emphasizing that her market only deals with fishermen with a wholesale license. "They're not supposed to, but it's just impossible to enforce."

The fish, which can weigh more than 50 pounds, can fetch about $150 each at restaurants, according to Fleming. He estimates, from what he hears around the marina, that more than 90 percent of cobia caught are sold to local restaurants. DNR representatives declined to comment on that estimate.

"I get that people have mouths to feed, and they'll do anything to do that," Fleming said. "But they're going about it the wrong way."

A DWINDLING RESOURCE?

The limit on cobia is set by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, a federal agency that institutes uniform policies for species from North Carolina to Key West.

But South Carolina, and specifically Beaufort County, has a unique relationship with cobia, according to Mel Bell, DNR's director of fisheries management.

Bell said the fish leave the Atlantic Ocean each year to spawn in the Port Royal and St. Helena sounds, causing them to concentrate in greater density in Beaufort County than anywhere else along the East Coast.

"People don't need to travel too far to catch these fish in Beaufort County," said Bell. "And with gas prices as high as they are, that makes cobia even more appealing."

The sounds are relatively empty of cobia right now, but that's about to change, said Hilton Head fisherman Johnny Walker.

"Right now there might be two people fishing for cobia in Port Royal Sound," he said. "But as soon as someone yells, 'Cobia!' there will be 102 the next day. And then 300 the day after that."

Beaufort fishing guide Wally Phinney likens the swarms of boats on local waters to "a Baptist convention," and, like Fleming, believes many of them are pursuing the fish for the wrong reasons.

"It's sad that people want to make easy money," he said. "But there's not much I can do about it."

Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

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