Cobia Researchers use Transmitters as well as Tags to Gather Data on Migratory Patterns
I must admit to having very limited personal experience with Cobia, having caught one sub-legal fish to-date. However, that does not diminish my fascination with the fish, particularly since I ran across a 2019 report from the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission titled “Management Profile for Gulf of Mexico Cobia.” This 182-page report is definitely not a quick read and I have thus far only scratched the surface by digging into a few chapters that caught my interest. Nevertheless, it is so full of detailed life history, biology and everything else “Cobia” that it is definitely worth a look. This posting will highlight some of the fascinating aspects of Cobia and why the species is so highly prized by so many people.
Cobia (Rachycentron canadum) are the sole species in the fish family Rachycentridae. They occur worldwide in most tropical and subtropical oceans but in Florida waters, we actually have two different groups. The Atlantic stock ranges along the Eastern U.S. from Florida to New York and the Gulf stock ranges From Florida to Texas. The Florida Keys appear to be a mixing zone of sorts where Cobia from both stocks go in the winter. As waters warm in the spring, these fish head northward up the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of Florida. The Northern Gulf coast is especially important as a spawning ground for the Gulf stock. There may even be some sub-populations within the Gulf stock, as tagged fish from the Texas coast were rarely caught going eastward. There also appears to be a group that overwinters in the offshore waters of the Northern Gulf, not making the annual trip to the Keys. My brief summary here regarding seasonal movement is most assuredly an over-simplification and scientists agree more recapture data is needed to understand various Cobia stock movements and boundaries.
Worldwide, the practice of Cobia aquaculture has exploded since the early 2000’s, with China taking the lead on production. Most operations complete their grow-out to market size in ponds or pens in nearshore waters. Due to their incredible growth rate, Cobia are an exceptional candidate for aquaculture. In the wild, fish can reach weights of 17 pounds and lengths of 23 inches in their first year. Aquaculture-raised fish tend to be shorter but heavier, comparatively. The U.S. is currently exploring rules for offshore aquaculture practices and cobia is a prime candidate for establishing this industry domestically.
Spawning takes place in the Northern Gulf from April through September. Male Cobia will reach sexual maturity at an amazing 1-2 years and females within 2-3 years. At maturity, they are able to spawn every 4-6 days throughout the spawning season. This prolific nature supports an average annual commercial harvest in the Gulf and East Florida of around 160,000 pounds. This is dwarfed by the recreational fishery, with 500,000 to 1,000,000 pounds harvested annually from the same region.
One of the Cobia’s unique features is that they are strongly attracted to structure, even if it is mobile. They are known to shadow large rays, sharks, whales, tarpon, and even sea turtles. This habit also makes them vulnerable to being caught around human-made FADs (Fish Aggregating Devices). Most large Cobia tournaments have banned the use of FADs during their events to recapture a more sporting aspect of Cobia fishing.
To wrap this up I’ll briefly recount an exciting, non-fish-catching, Cobia experience. My son and I were in about 35 feet of water off the Wakulla County coastline fishing near an old wreck. Nothing much was happening when I noticed a short fin breaking the water briefly, about 20 yards behind a bobber we had cast out with a dead pinfish under it. I had not seen this before and was unaware of what was about to happen. When the fish ate that bait and came tight on the line the rod luckily hung up on something in the bottom of the boat. As the reel’s drag system screamed, a Cobia that I gauged to be 4-5 feet long jumped clear out of the water about 40 yards from us. Needless to say, by the time we gained control of the rod it was too late; a heartbreaking missed opportunity. Every time we have been fishing since then, I just can’t stop looking for that short, pointed fin slicing towards one of our baits.
Erik works as the UF/IFAS Franklin County Extension Director and as a Regional Specialized Agent for the Florida Sea Grant program in Northwest Florida. His Extension office is located in the historic fishing village of Apalachicola. Due to the small-town, rural nature of Franklin County, he is the only Extension Agent and provides a wide diversity of expertise on topics ranging from home horticulture and gardening to 4-H youth development, natural resources, and invasive species issues.
Growing up in what used to be a rural environment in Central Florida, Erik spent his free time roaming the woods and waters around his home near Apopka. Back then, once school was out for the summer, parents could just turn the kids loose to explore. After receiving his first 5-speed bike, he could be anywhere within a five-mile radius of the house. After high school, Erik worked (not so diligently) to cram a two-year A.A. degree into five years at a local junior college. When he decided to get serious about the future, he moved to Gainesville with his wife Terri and completed a B.S. in Wildlife Ecology in the normal two years; then on to Purdue University for a M.S. in Wildlife.
Coming to work for Extension was the result of a late-career change for Erik but his jobs leading up to this were a great training ground for a well-rounded County Agent. Erik worked for five years after college with the former Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (GFC now FFWCC) as a regional Education Specialist and then as the statewide Nongame Education Program Coordinator. Then, on to a brief 23-year stint at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve as the Education Program Coordinator. This put him in the right place at the right time when the opportunity came to join the UF/IFAS Extension team in the Northwest District. His Extension programs focus on supporting the seafood industry, coastal resource stewardship, and a nice mix of “whatever folks need. The diversity of the job is what keeps it interesting,” says Lovestrand.
Erik teaching about horseshoe crab at Ecology Field Day in Jefferson County.
With their three kids grown and on their own, things have not slowed down much. Terri runs a home day-care and manages a girl’s travel volleyball club. There are four grandkids in the picture now too. Erik enjoys the home garden, spring turkey season and annual hunting adventures on St. Vincent Island. When he retires, he says he will get back to his hobby of making custom knives, something that has gone dormant since he began this job for some odd reason. “I’ve been very fortunate indeed, to have had the career opportunities that bring me to this place,” says Lovestrand. “The NW Extension District is a great place to work!”
Hard work and perseverance are a must for oyster farmers.
On September 17, 2020, President Trump and US Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, announced a second phase of an important program assisting America’s farmers. The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP 1) was originally announced in April 2020 and now CFAP 2 will provide up to an additional $40 billion in support, along with adding more than 40 specialty crops not previously covered under CFAP 1.
This will be welcome news for many Panhandle farmers; particularly the ones that conduct their “chores” in our Panhandle bays and bayous by producing aquacultured oysters and clams. Losses in sales of molluscan shellfish were not covered under CFAP 1 because they were eligible for some assistance under the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security). However, many local growers were not able to qualify under the CARES Act for various reasons and are in serious need of assistance. When restaurants and bars were forced to close during the pandemic, sales of fresh oysters and clams basically came to a standstill overnight. Many creative efforts at direct marketing to customers and other avenues to move these time-sensitive products have been undertaken but sales are still far from what they were in 2019, leaving many growers with bills to pay and a significantly reduced bottom line.
Applications for CFAP 2 will be accepted by the USDA from September 21 through December 11, 2020. Payments will be based on 2019 sales, excepting new farmers who had no sales in 2019. Their calculations will be based on 2020 sales up to the point of application. The percent-payment-factor will be figured on a sliding scale, depending on amount of sales; ranging from 10.6% for sales below $50,000 to 8.8% for sales over $1 million.
The USDA has done a very good job of laying out information regarding the program on their website (here) and also provide assistance through their local Farm Service Agency offices around the state. Assistance with applications is available on line at this link. Two of the counties that have a significant and growing oyster aquaculture industry in the mid-Panhandle are Wakulla and Franklin. The FSA office for Wakulla County is in Monticello and can be called at (850) 997-2072 ext 2, or email Melissa Rodgers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Growers in Franklin County can reach their FSA office in Blountstown at (850) 674-8388 ext 2, or email Brent Reitmeier at email@example.com.
Growing oysters in floating bags requires getting wet, alot
With the plethora of confusing acronyms flying around in our present day, CFAP is one worth paying attention to. Why? Because it is providing targeted assistance to a segment of our US economy we should all stand behind. Agriculture is a critical component of all of our lives each and every day. If you have a chance to thank a farmer for what they do, or a legislator for moving this effort forward, or an industry support group that provided the data the legislator needed; don’t miss the opportunity. The hard-working men and woman who produce our food supply, including great, locally grown fresh seafood, deserve it.
When we moved to the Florida Panhandle in 1989 and bought a house in Wakulla County, my wife and I inherited a grape arbor that was planted by the original builder of the home many years previous. It consisted of three 4×4 posts with cross pieces at the top and a run of heavy gauge wire out near the ends of each cross piece. Maintenance had been lacking for some years so the vines had grown into a massive tangle which at first glance, I surmised I would end up cutting down to help improve the appearance of the property. Well, as is often the case, timing is everything and the existence to this day of that grape arbor, is due to the fact that it was late summer and the vines had some fruit on them. It only took one taste of a sweet, flavorful black muscadine grape to decide they were worth keeping. Little did I know what I was in for though, when it came to properly managing this “wildling” for a productive, beautiful arbor; one that now provides many culinary options, as well as a pleasing, eye-catching aspect in our home landscape.
After looking closer at the vines, it appeared that there were two different species of grapes growing. The very dark purple (almost black) muscadines, were dwarfed by much larger greenish-bronze grapes at one end of the arbor. I now know that these grapes are typically referred to as scuppernongs by most locals and they are actually the same species as the dark grapes. In fact, Vitus rotundifolia is the scientific name for our native wild grapes that have a range from Florida to New Jersey in the east, and west to Texas and Oklahoma. The fruits of this species can be bronze, black or red, depending on the cultivar and they are the same species I remembered picking from wild vines as a youth, which ranged in size from ¼ to ½ inch and were often quite tart. Currently, there are about 150 cultivars of muscadine grapes grown for their fruit and their innate resistance to pests and diseases.
The reason for the two varieties on our grape arbor had to do with the fact that many muscadines produce only pistillate flowers and require pollen from another variety to produce fruit. A few varieties have perfect flowers and can produce fruit on their own, notably Carlos and Noble. Writings about these native grapes date back to the early 1500’s as early explorers of the Cape Fear River Valley in modern-day North Carolina described its abundance and pleasing qualities. The common name “scuppernong” is derived from the Scuppernong River in North Carolina but the name has many variations depending on the locale (scuplin, scufalum, scupanon, scupadine, scuppernine, scupnun, and scufadine). The word “scuppernong” comes from the Algonquian “askuponong,” meaning “place of the askupo,” which is the sweet bay tree (Magnolia virginiana). Cultivation has been recorded as early as the 17th century and with over 100 years of breeding, several bronze cultivars such as Carlos, Doreen, Magnolia and Triumph, are distinguished by having perfect flowers. There is one particular vine on Roanoke Island North Carolina that is considered by many to be the “Mother Vine” for all modern day varieties. This vine has been cultivated for around 400 years, to-date.
Dark purple muscadine grapes are often called “black grapes.”
If by this time, you are working up a craving for a taste of muscadines, you are not alone because late-summer is the peak production period for many vines around the region. If you do not have your own vines, you are still able to get these grapes at several places around our area. Visit this link for a list of wineries and vineyards in Florida, some of which run u-pick operations. Or you may even have a nearby neighbor with an abundance of fruit and generosity. Some cultivated varieties are suitable for table fare as they have fewer seeds and thinner skins. The tougher-skinned varieties are suitable for jellies, jams, grape butter, and wine making. Bronze scuppernongs produce a very light-colored wine with a mild fruity flavor, while the dark purple muscadines derive a dark reddish, and stronger flavored wine. No matter the type of muscadine, they all provide important habitat and food for many wild critters as well. Thankfully, they generally produce enough bounty to go around and I never begrudge the opossums, raccoons, squirrels and birds their share of the blessing.
We won’t see it tomorrow… but desperately needed funds for a hard-hit fishing industry are on the way. Congress has allocated $300 million in relief funds for losses suffered by various fishery-related businesses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It comes as part of the $1.8 trillion CARES Act, which focuses on supporting businesses and individuals who have had financial losses during these difficult times.
The Charter Fishing Industry was Impacted as People Stopped Travelling.
To allocate the Sec. 12005 funds, NOAA Fisheries used readily available multi-year averages to estimate the total average annual revenues from commercial fishing operations, aquaculture firms, the seafood supply chain (processors, dealers, wholesalers and distributors) and charter fishing businesses from each coastal state, Tribe, and territory. Florida’s share worked out to be $22.4 million for eligible applicants, which includes licensed commercial fishers, seafood wholesale dealers, charter fishing businesses, and aquaculture use certificate holders that are live-rock or bivalve producers. Applicants must be able to document at least a 35% loss of revenue between Jan-May 2020 as compared to the average of the previous five years during the same period.
Oyster Farmers were Dramatically Impacted when Restaurants Closed.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission received public input during July and will be submitting Florida’s plan for approval to NOAA in early August. After NOAA approval, the FWC will be administering the application and approval process, while the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will be sending checks directly to successful applicants. This supportive funding will be in the form of a grant and will not require repayment.
To see the FWC’s draft spending plan that will be going to NOAA click HERE. If you would like more information about the CARES Act and the FWC’s role in this effort please visit their website at this LINK. If you think you might be eligible for these funds, don’t wait for the 30 day application period to open (planned for October 2020) before doing your research on this relief funding. Go now to the FWC spending plan so you can begin preparing the documentation that will be required. With the impacts sustained from Hurricane Michael and now the virus, it is hard to imagine an industry sector in our Panhandle region that is more in need of help.