The staff at Waddell Mariculture Center includes, from left, Jason Broach, Jake Morgenstern and Kyle Woznick. Erin Levesque, director of the center, is not pictured.

You would think that all folks would associate the color green with spring but, oh no! Around here, brown is by far the color everyone is talking about – everyone, that is, who has anything to do with fishing, and more specifically fishing for cobia. In some areas of the country they are called “ling” but around these parts “brownies” is their given title.

If you have followed my writing then you know I have a very soft spot for these particular fish. For most of my life, fisherman never targeted cobia all that much, but as techniques for catching them improved and more boats started showing up in local waters, the brownie craze took over. It got so crazy it was hard to see how these sociable fish could possibly survive such an onslaught.

Unfortunately, right here in Port Royal Sound, that possibility became reality as we decimated the population of genetically pure Port Royal cobia that had been arriving in that sound each spring to mate, something they had done for hundreds of years if not longer.

Without dwelling on the downside of this sad story, a lot of good came from what has since been learned about these amazing fish.

South Carolina is years ahead of other Southern states when it comes to understanding the migration patterns of cobia, through satellite tagging and identifying specific groups of cobia through DNA sampling.

Much of this discovery came from our very own Waddell Mariculture Center’s studies, with the help of both private individuals and charter fisherman. By collecting them in deep freezers at specific marinas, carcasses of caught cobia, along with fin clippings from fish that were released, once and for all proved that cobia were divided into specific groups. Some were strictly offshore cobia, bouncing along the coast from Florida all the way to Virginia, while others, like the Port Royal group, were specific to that body of water.

It wasn’t until we learned this that steps were taken to close our state waters in the month of May so that these Port Royal cobia might breed and replenish the population there.

To further that cause, genetically pure Port Royal males and females were captured and bred at the Waddell center. In the past year alone, Waddell has released nearly 12,000 Port Royal strain cobia back into the sound.

Though the center is sorely understaffed, I have to hand it to Erin Levesque, Waddell’s director, and her two biologists, Jake Morgenstern and Jason Broach, for not only bringing the facility up to date but also doing a superhuman job with their fish rearing efforts, water sampling and research that will keep our precious waters healthy and vibrant.

State waters are closed the entire month of May and any cobia caught during that period must be released unharmed. As of June 1, the allowance is one cobia per day per angler in state waters, with no more than three per boat. As for offshore federal waters, one cobia per person per day with no more than six fish per boat. As for the size limit, they must be 36 inches fork length or 40 inches total length.

This is when I just have to throw in my personal opinion: South Carolina’s limit of six cobia per boat is insane. Two per boat is more than enough fish to feed a small army.

I have seen days at some of our artificial reefs such as the Betsy Ross with more than 50 boats covering every square inch of the reef, and every single boat is after one fish and one fish only – cobia.

These fish are being hammered from the moment they leave Florida waters all the way up to Virginia. Historically, North Carolina and Virginia have exceeded the allotted poundage for cobia by as much as 100%, which has led to closing of the cobia fishery. They are about where we were when we initially began cobia research here.

While I attending conferences when I was on the cobia/mackerel board for the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, I was very vocal, warning other delegates that they might see populations crash in their state waters if they don’t also close their waters for a period long enough to allow cobia to mate and keep populations stable. Thus far, they have no closure of state waters.

I’ll end this column with a plea to all you cobia freaks that live for this time of year: Cobia are not hard to catch because they are so curious, often swimming right up to a boat. From experience, I know how tempting it is go into a “fish frenzy,” when six or more brownies swim up. But if you want to continue to have cobia around here, make your own boat policy of one or two fish per boat. Another plea is to net fish, not gaff them.

The larger fish are almost always females full of eggs, so let the big ones go and keep a couple of smaller fish. Even then you’ll have more than enough meat to feed the entire neighborhood. If we all do this we’ll enjoy these great fish for generations, but if we don’t – well, the writing is on the wall.

Hopefully Waddell will reopen for tours once the pandemic threat is over and I encourage all of you to experience this great facility and donate to the Waddell Fund. I hope my Waddell fundraiser “Run For The Bulls” mahi tournament on May 15 will raise enough to add another intern to the staff.

Waddell is truly the gem of the Lowcountry and needs your support. 

Collins Doughtie, a 60-year resident of the Lowcountry, is a sportsman, graphic artist, and lover of nature.