Cobia: An Amazing Fish and Fishery for North Florida

Cobia: An Amazing Fish and Fishery for North Florida

image of two fish tracking tools

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.

I HEART seafood!

I HEART seafood!

Cooked red snapper (Photo credit: L. Tiu)

It’s February and for many, our thoughts turn to romance and other things that make the heart happy, like seafood! There is a strong “love” connection between consuming seafood and heart health.  Fish and shellfish are low in saturated fat, high in protein and fairly easy and quick to cook. But seafood has a secret weapon in the battle for our hearts as it is considered a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.  The health effects of omega-3 fatty acids have been extensively investigated, and it appears that marine fish oil lowers triglycerides, boosts HDL cholesterol, provides other cardiovascular benefits, fights inflammation, and reduces blood clot formation.

The current recommendation from the American Heart Association is 1 to 2 seafood meals, 8 ounces or more, per week be consumed to reduce the risk of congestive heart failure, coronary heart disease, ischemic stroke, and sudden cardiac death, especially when seafood replaces the intake of less healthy foods. This translates into 250 to 500 mg of omega-3 per day or 1750 to 3500 mg per week.  For the past 30 years, Americans’ weekly consumption of seafood has hovered around 5 oz per week, with only 10% to 20% of U.S. consumers meeting the 8 ounces minimal federal dietary guideline.

Historically, attention has focused on wild, cold-water, fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines as sources of the most omega-3 fatty acids.  However, in this case variety is a key.  With a growing number of aquaculture fish and shellfish on the market it is important to note that recent studies show for some species of salmon or trout, omega-3 levels are higher in farm-raised species, due to their overall higher fat content.  In other good news, many of our local Gulf of Mexico species have been shown to contain good amounts as well. This information means that fishermen and women can eat home-caught fish to get the needed omega-3 fatty acids. Gulf fish are also an excellent source of protein and other nutrients. The following Table contains the omega-3 fatty acid content of some of the most frequently consumed fish and shellfish species in the U.S.  So do your heart a favor and start feeding it right.

Omega-3 Content of Frequently Consumed Seafood Products
SEAFOOD PRODUCT
OMEGA-3s PER 3 OUNCE COOKED PORTION
Herring, Wild (Atlantic & Pacific) ♥♥♥♥♥ >1,500 milligrams
Salmon, Farmed (Atlantic) ♥♥♥♥♥
Salmon, Wild (King) ♥♥♥♥♥
Mackerel, Wild (Pacific & Jack) ♥♥♥♥♥

 

SEAFOOD PRODUCT
OMEGA-3s PER 3 OUNCE COOKED PORTION
Salmon, Wild (Sockeye, Coho, Chum & Pink) ♥♥♥ 500 to 1,000 milligrams
Sardines, Canned ♥♥♥
Tuna, Canned (White Albacore) ♥♥♥
Swordfish, Wild ♥♥♥
Trout, Farmed (Rainbow) ♥♥♥
Oysters, Wild & Farmed ♥♥♥
Mussels, Wild & Farmed ♥♥♥

 

SEAFOOD PRODUCT
OMEGA-3s PER 3 OUNCE COOKED PORTION
Tuna, Canned (Light) ♥♥ 200 to 500 milligrams
Tuna, Wild (Skipjack) ♥♥
Pollock, Wild (Alaskan) ♥♥
Rockfish, Wild (Pacific) ♥♥
Clams, Wild & Farmed ♥♥
Crab, Wild (King, Dungeness & Snow) ♥♥
Lobster, Wild (Spiny) ♥♥
Snapper, Wild ♥♥
Grouper, Wild ♥♥
Flounder/Sole, Wild ♥♥
Halibut, Wild (Pacific & Atlantic) ♥♥
Ocean Perch, Wild ♥♥
Squid, Wild (Fried) ♥♥
Fish Sticks (Breaded) ♥♥

 

SEAFOOD PRODUCT
OMEGA-3s PER 3 OUNCE COOKED PORTION
Scallops, Wild < 200 milligrams
Shrimp, Wild & Farmed
Lobster, Wild (Northern)
Crab, Wild (Blue)
Cod, Wild
Haddock, Wild
Tilapia, Farmed
Catfish, Farmed
Mahimahi, Wild
Tuna, Wild (Yellowfin)
Orange Roughy, Wild
Surimi Product (Imitation Crab)

Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference

 

CFAP 2 Will Cover an Additional 40 Commodities; Including Farmed Molluscan Shellfish

CFAP 2 Will Cover an Additional 40 Commodities; Including Farmed Molluscan Shellfish

oyster boat lifting cage

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 melissa.rodgers@usda.gov. Growers in Franklin County can reach their FSA office in Blountstown at (850) 674-8388 ext 2, or email Brent Reitmeier at brent.reitmeier@usda.gov.

oyster grower in water with gear

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.

Crawfish!

Crawfish!

Crawfish boils are popular in the springtime. Crawfish are generally harvested from aquaculture operations. Photo credit: Libbie Johnson, UF IFAS Extension

You get a line, I’ll get a pole, we’ll go down to the crawdad hole, honey, baby, mine“…there are lots of great zydeco songs singing the praises of crawfish (aka crayfish, crawdads, mudbugs). They are in season now, and while crawfish festivals all around the southeast are canceled due to concerns over COVID-19, they are still available and make for great eating. Most of us would recognize a cooked one alongside a feast of corn and potatoes, but would you know an actual crawfish hole if you came up on it?

Last fall, our office welcomed about 500 kids (over several days) to the 4-H camp in Barrineau Park for a field trip. I showed every single one of them a small muddy mound with an opening in the top, and asked if anyone could tell me what it was. Not a single kid knew! Now, I make sure I point crawfish mounds out to anyone I happen to be walking with, as they are fascinating little structures. Also referred to as crawfish chimneys due to their upright, open construction, they are built by a crawfish in a muddy area, often near a creek or other water source.

Crawfish mounds are constructed using small pellets of mud, and the opening connects down to a burrow. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

The industrious invertebrate uses its legs and mouth to create pellets of mud as it digs its burrow. It places mud up above the ground, using the mud balls like small bricks. Bricking up the entrance to its burrow (as opposed to placing discarded mud elsewhere) also protects a crawfish from exposure to predators on open soil. The crawfish chimneys can be 6 inches tall (or more!) and connect down to a burrow that may reach 3 feet deep, some straight down and others with side tunnels extending different directions.

Since the crawfish lives in wetland areas, it is theorized that these chimneys extending above the soil allow for better oxygen flow in the burrow. During a drought, crawfish will plug the opening of their mounds with mud, to keep water in the burrow from evaporating.

Crawfish in the wild are rarely harvested, although some folks do fish for them like the song referenced earlier. For the vast majority of crawfish harvested in commercial production, two species are the most popular–the white river crawfish (Procambarus zonangulus) and red swamp crawfish (Procambarus clarkii). They are typically farmed in coordination with rice, as both commodities thrive in flooded conditions. Most aquaculture operations are associated with Louisiana, but at least five other southern U.S. states farm crawfish. To learn more about this industry, check out LSU AgCenter’s informative video.

New List Provides Assistance Options for Florida Coastal Businesses

New List Provides Assistance Options for Florida Coastal Businesses

Florida Sea Grant is maintaining a curated list of disaster assistance options for Florida’s coastal businesses disrupted by COVID-19.

Boats at dock in harbor

Boats at calmly at rest in Massalina Bayou, Bay County, Florida.

The list contains links to details about well- and lesser-known options and includes “quick takeaway” overviews of each assistance program. Well-funded and widely available programs are prioritized on the list. The page also houses a collection of links to additional useful resources, including materials in Spanish.

 

“There is a lot of information floating around out there,” says Andrew Ropicki, Florida Sea Grant natural resources economist and one of the project leaders. “We are trying to provide a timely and accurate collection of resources that will be useful for Florida coastal businesses.”

 

Ropicki and others on the project team stress that the best place to start an application for disaster aid is to visit with your bank or lender and the Florida Small Business Development Center (SBDC). They also suggest contacting local representatives by telephone or email and not to just rely on internet-based applications.

Overview of Selected Disaster Assistance Programs Benefiting Florida Small Businesses including Agriculture, Aquaculture, and Fisheries (COVID-19)

The project team — which includes experts from Florida Sea Grant, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension, and the UF/IFAS Center for Public Issues Education — reviews the page regularly for accuracy and to include new options.

Commercial seafood is a large part of Florida’s economy and culture.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

“[I] really appreciate the outstanding work that you and FSG have done on consolidating the various types of aid available to fishermen due to the virus,” said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, in a recent email. “I’ve been searching for a comprehensive listing and you just provided it.”

Searching for Local Seafood

Searching for Local Seafood

I recently had the fortunate opportunity to observe a commercial longline vessel being unloaded at a landing near Perdido Key.  10,000 pounds of fish, mostly grouper and tilefish, were being unloaded for markets in Atlanta, Canada, and locally.  When I heard 10,000 pounds two things popped into my head right way…

1)      That is a lot of fish

2)      It is great to know that fresh local seafood can still be had.

It is a lot of fish, and this concerns some about the future of wild caught seafood.  Humans have been harvesting wild caught seafood since the beginning of time, or at least as far back as boats go.  What has changed today is better technology and more fishermen on the water.  With these issues in mind, you have to either (a) reduce the number of fishermen on the sea, or (b) reduce the number of fish harvested.  Though not always popular, this is where fisheries management comes in.

Commercial seafood is a large part of Florida’s economy and culture.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

The basic idea is to allow each species a chance to breed at least once before they are harvested.  The Magnuson-Stevens Act, passed in 1996, requires that commercial fisheries within U.S. territorial waters be sustainable – meaning viable into perpetuity.  To do this you need to know the life cycles of your target species.  At what age do they become sexually mature and begin breeding?  The age of a fish can be determined by rings in the otolith (ear bone) and there is a correlation between the number of rings and the length of the fish; hence the length regulations many species have.  You need to know at what age they reach maturity, you allow one (sometimes more) years beyond this age allowing them to breed.

 

The next metric is how many of the mature adults can you allow to be harvested and remain sustainable.  This obviously takes a lot of fisheries biology, and there are researchers at the federal, state, and university levels who work on these questions.  When you know the answer to some of the biology questions, you can now input this into a computer model and determine what is known as the maximum sustainable yield, or how many fish (or the number of pounds) can be removed and still be sustainable.

 

Computer models are only as good as the programs that are developed for them.  These can be hard to test.  Hurricane computer models have become pretty good.  Everyone remembers when Michael was approaching the Pensacola area and the modelers were sure it would make an eastward turn; and it eventually did.  The thing about hurricane models is that if they are not working well, you know relatively quickly.  Hurricane approaches shore – computer predicts where it will go – it makes landfall somewhere else – you correct the model – we get better.  With fisheries, and other issues, we do not always get feedback as quickly as this.  Stock assessments for selected species have to be made to see how the models are working, and this takes time.

 

Though it may not be an exact science, fisheries management certainly has helped hold on to some species that would have been harvested out otherwise.

There are about 80 species of commercial seafood products that come from Florida.
Photo: Florida Sea Grant

As far as knowing local seafood is still available, this is good news for many.  Checking in with your local seafood markets you can find a variety of species at different times of the year.  Some provide information as to which local restaurants they sell to.  Many locals, and visitors, are willing to pay a higher price for these sought-after seafood species.  It is good to know you can still get them in our area.