There seems to be no limit to how many bad ideas the National Marine Fisheries Service can come up with. The proposed Amendment 8 to the swordfish management plan is just the latest example.
What NMFS perceives as a big problem now — that swordfish stocks have increased to healthy levels — is not a problem at all in the minds of many anglers. As NMFS sees it, the the United States is not killing enough swordfish. Commercial fishermen have not met the U.S. portion of the international quota for swordfish landings. The thing that seems to terrify NMFS and the commercial longline industry the most is that the unused U.S. quota may be assigned to other countries. By the way, about 30 percent of the annual U.S. quota, which was not landed, has already been given to other nations. Does that make sense? It does to NMFS and the commercial industry. It also has some support in the sport-fishing community.
The supposed logic behind not wanting other countries to receive the unused U.S. quota is that other longline fleets are not as conservative as the U.S. longline fleet. Keep in mind that pelagic longline gear is one of the most environmentally destructive kinds of commercial fishing gear in terms of bycatch. Only bottom longlines, bottom trawls and dynamite are worse.
I am disappointed that some conservation and environmental groups have bought into this logic. They feel that if other nations are assigned part of the U.S. quota, their bycatch will be worse than our bycatch. These groups fail to see that the relative amount of bycatch is not the problem; it’s just a symptom of the real problem, which is longlining itself. Instead of working to protect the U.S. swordfish quota, over 90 percent of which is caught on longlines, everyone should be working to eliminate pelagic longlining from the oceans.
Step one is to phase out all longlining in U.S. waters. This has been done in the Bahamas with outstanding results.
Step two is to put pressure on other countries to phase out their destructive longlining as well. How do you apply effective pressure on others? Stop importing marine products from any country that doesn’t have an effective plan to shift from longlines to other types of gear with little or no bycatch.
Some of NMFS’s Great Ideas
So what great plans has NMFS proposed to make sure that the U.S. swordfish quota is reached? One idea is to let any recreational angler buy a commercial swordfish permit for about $20. The average dressed-weight size of a swordfish is 96 pounds. The average price for swordfish is $4.51 per pound. That equates to about $433 for each swordfish sold. Certainly that is enough to lure thousands of recreational anglers into buying a cheap permit. Of course, increased commercial landings would no doubt lead to lower prices, but the temptation would certainly remain.
NMFS has no idea how many new permits would be sold, and the demand could easily become unmanageable. As a comparison, there are about 4,100 general category tuna permits. Can you imagine 4,000 new commercial swordfish vessels operating off Florida’s lower east coast? The new permits, as proposed, would include rod and reel, hand lines, bandit gear (electric reels), harpoons and green sticks.
NMFS has also proposed a complex system of regional management areas with varying swordfish quotas for each region. Why it is proposing quotas on hand gear when it wants to increase landings remains unclear. In some cases, the proposed hand-gear quota would be one swordfish. Another option that NMFS is considering is to allow charter and head boats to sell their swordfish catch when not carrying passengers for hire. This is just another proposal to separate charter boats from the recreational industry, which can reduce the already small recreational quotas on some species.