The Science of Cobia

Get to know the brown bull of tropical waters.

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Cobia: Coastal Nomad
"No, that’s not a shark. Not a remora either. Yes, definitely cast your bait; it’s a cobia!” I'm sure many charter skippers and guides from the mid-Atlantic through the Gulf have issued such instructions more than once. Cobia might be hard to identify and easily confused with sharks, especially if they've appeared suddenly from the green periphery, but their arrival energizes anglers in a heartbeat. They are one of the best-tasting, most nondescript fishes that swim in all tropical and subtropical waters (sans the eastern Pacific). Whether you fish off Australia, Japan, India or the Southeast United States, the cobia you catch are the same species — Rachycentron canadum — the sole member of its family. Find out the rest of the story in this gallery.Pat Ford
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Cobia: Coastal Nomad
So whether you call them crab-eaters, lemonfish, ling, cobia or something else entirely, there’s plenty to the brown bomber that swims curiously up to your boat. Once hooked, a cobia fights as hard as a bull bucking a cowboy. The life history of coastal pelagic cobia might not be as studied as some other game fish, but what is known might surprise you — and catch you more fish. (Photo Credit: Jason Stemple)Jason Stemple
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Cobia: Coastal Nomad
Cobia are rapid growers and fairly quick to mature, according to researcher Nancy Brown-Peterson, at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Department of Coastal Studies. “Cobia have a long reproductive season — April through September — in the United States, and an individual female is capable of spawning as many as 36 times during a season,” Brown-Peterson says. “They spawn in the coastal waters of the continental shelf, not in bays, estuaries or right along the shoreline. Currently there is little evidence of the actual spawning-­aggregation activity.” Female cobia, which grow faster and bigger than males, produce small, pelagic eggs that drift along the continental shelf; researchers have captured the larvae offshore in surface waters of the Gulf of Mexico from May through September. “Due to their small size and relatively weak swimming ability,” she says, “they are likely dependent on current and winds for movement in the first several weeks of life. We really don’t have much information about their early life history.” (Photo Credit: Jason Stemple)Jason Stemple
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Cobia: Coastal Nomad
What is known is that cobia grow tremendously in their first year, though not as quickly as bluefin tuna or mahimahi. Cobia in grow-out pens in warm, Puerto Rican waters grew 13.2 pounds in about a year. Cobia stocked in higher-density pens in slightly cooler waters of the Bahamas still grew 7.7 pounds in 346 days. Pelagic species such as dolphin, wahoo, and cobia tend to grow quickly, and have relatively short lives; conversely, benthic species like snapper and grouper can live for decades, growing much more slowly. Stringent size ­regulations in the Gulf of Mexico fishery (33-inch fork length minimum) ensure that cobia have matured before anglers can keep them for dinner — rightfully — but that does limit the data scientists have on their age and size at maturity. “The smallest ­reproductively active female we encountered was 27.5 inches, which corresponds to a one- or two-year-old fish,” says Brown-Peterson. “The smallest active male we found was 25 inches, a one-year-old fish. (Photo Credit: Pat Ford)Pat Ford
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Cobia: Coastal Nomad
One definitive way to track the movements of a species is via a dedicated tagging program. Tracking cobia allows regulators to manage the species (and can also help anglers know when and where to find cobia off their coastline). Satellite tags have already revealed that ling almost never dive deep, choosing to stay in the water column above 200 feet deep. The Sport Fish Tag and Release Program, at the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, utilizes angler ­participation to tag cobia throughout the Gulf of Mexico and in the Atlantic. The program can trace its beginnings way back to 1988 in Biloxi, Mississippi. Since then, thousands of anglers have tagged cobia, with about a 6.4 percent recapture rate. (Photo Credit: USM Gulf Coast Research Laboratory)USM Gulf Coast Research Laboratory
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Cobia: Coastal Nomad
Three semidistinct migration groups in the Gulf of Mexico revealed themselves from tagging data. Following the warm water north in summer and south in winter, cobia almost always favor waters from the 60s to 80s, says Jim Franks, senior research scientist at the Center for Fisheries Research & Development. Cobia spring migrations are water-­temperature related and likely linked to pre-spawning behavior. “Fish head from [west] Florida up the Panhandle to Mississippi in the summer, then back to South Florida in the winter,” says Read Hendon, director for the Center for Fisheries Research & Development. “In the western Gulf, cobia hang around Texas and Mexico in the winter, but head north to Louisiana in the summer.” On the Atlantic Coast, cobia migrate as far north as Chesapeake Bay in summer and back down to Florida waters in winter. An invisible dividing line between Gulf and Atlantic cobia groups seems to be southeastern Florida. (Photo Credit: Scott Sommerlatte)Capt. Scott Sommerlatte
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Cobia: Coastal Nomad
From Florida’s Panhandle to Mississippi each spring you’ll see the world’s most fanatical cobia fishermen, duking it out in tournaments along the beaches. The reliable sight fishery in this portion of the northern Gulf is highly publicized, yet it keeps producing year after year. Cobia heading west migrate tightly along the beaches each spring, allowing anglers to spot singles and pods throughout the day from tower boats. Quizzically, the return trip for cobia in fall is much more of a shotgun migration, preventing fishermen from reliable catches on a day‑to-day basis. Action available to anglers each March though June has led to a booming tournament craze. Capt. Pat Dineen, of Flyliner Charters in Destin, Florida, watches the chaos unfold every year. "The tournaments here are getting big, with payouts almost rivaling some of the blue marlin tournaments," he says, only half-joking. Fish weighing 40 and 50 pounds are often the lowest weights entered, with bigger fish from 80 to 100 pounds claiming the prizes. The days of spotting 30 fish in a day are mostly gone, but anglers can expect to see six to 15 fish daily, says Dineen. Some new trends have emerged in recent years. “Fishermen seem to be fishing deeper off Destin,” he says. “Before, they hunted cobia in 7 feet; now they’re fishing in 50 feet, which is still only ¾-mile offshore.” (Photo Credit: Jason Stemple)Jason Stemple
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Cobia: Coastal Nomad
Cobia Trends: Structure is still absolutely vital, as pictured. But some outlaw anglers deploy private fish-attracting devices (FADs) in slightly deeper waters, sometimes called “artificial turtles,” to attract cobia. That deploying private FADs is illegal doesn’t stop some from setting their homemade creations under the cover of darkness. A cobia’s affinity for sea turtles, rays, whale sharks and natural structure makes the taboo practice highly effective. When it’s time to bring that hooked cobia into the boat, a growing number of fishermen are opting for giant nets made from companies like Frabill instead of gaffs, says Dineen. The use of big nets in tournaments helps prevent any weight loss that might happen from a gaff hook. Nets also allow anglers to control cobia on the deck, as well as release any fish that won’t be eaten for dinner. “More and more cobia are staying in the northern Gulf later in the season,” says Dineen. “Chumming for snapper off the beach in June, I often have cobia show in the chum line. Also in the fall, fishing for jacks around the structure, cobia will show then too.” (Photo Credit: Doug Olander)Doug Olander
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Cobia: Coastal Nomad
Besides their habits, cobia often come in two different shades: dark brown (pictured) or horizontally banded in white and light brown. Both males and females in different sizes can exhibit the color schemes, says Jim Franks. (Photo Credit: Pat Ford)Pat Ford
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Cobia: Coastal Nomad
The exact reasoning for different colorations isn’t entirely known, though it might have something to do with spawning behavior. During spawning, researchers have witnessed cobia undergo changes in body coloration from brown to a light horizontal-striped pattern (pictured), according to biologist Cathy Bester, of the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History. (Photo Credit: Jason Stemple)Jason Stemple
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Cobia: Coastal Nomad
The hearty cobia's ­incredible growth rate allowed researchers at the University of Miami to successfully spawn cobia and grow them via ­aquaculture methods. Daniel Benetti, a professor and director of aquaculture at the University of Miami, leads the efforts at the South Florida hatchery that eventually allowed the Open Blue company to farm-raise tasty cobia in giant pens off the Caribbean coast of Panama. (Photo Credit: Dan Benetti / UM Aquaculture)Dan Benetti / UM Aquaculture
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Cobia: Coastal Nomad
“From egg to 100 grams, cobia take about 100 days of growing in the hatchery,” says Brian O’Hanlon, founder of Open Blue. “After that, they’re strong enough to move offshore and handle the sometimes-turbulent conditions.” Cobia grow for nine to 10 months before being harvested, ­averaging about 12 pounds." (Photo Credit: Dan Benetti / UM Aquaculture)Dan Benetti / UM Aquaculture
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Cobia: Coastal Nomad
The United States imports up to 90 percent of its seafood, about half of which is from ­aquaculture, according to NOAA’s FishWatch. With the demand for seafood only growing, aquaculture operations like Open Blue’s for cobia should bolster existing wild stocks. Commercial harvest efforts could dramatically soften if tasty saltwater species are available via sustainable aquaculture. Don’t be surprised if species such as tuna and snapper are the next on the list for offshore farming, says Benetti. And that’s good news for ­recreational anglers. (Photo Credit: Dan Benetti / UM Aquaculture)Dan Benetti / UM Aquaculture