Achievements that furthered conservation efforts for billfish may be in jeopardy, because longlines may soon be back off the Florida coast and in other important areas that currently restrict their use. The benefits for fish stocks and fishing opportunities resulting from longline closures seem to have been forgotten. The theme of one step forward and two steps back seems to be all too common in fisheries management.
Reports coming from the mid-Atlantic states during August and September were phenomenal. Boats routinely returned into their home marinas flying riggers full of release flags for blue marlin, white marlin and sailfish. On a given day, a grand slam was not out of the question, and double-digit days for white marlin were the norm. The combination of good weather conditions and a great body of fish made this year’s white-marlin bite incredible for boats out of the mid Atlantic.
Theories abound among captains, mates and anglers — all trying to put their fingers on the increasing number of billfish caught and released in recent years. Sure, weather patterns and availability of bait play a large role in how these bodies of fish come together, but there are other key factors that have played an important role in increasing the number of billfish.
The use of circle hooks, even outside of tournaments, has become common practice for billfish anglers targeting sailfish with live bait in South Florida and crews trolling natural baits. The decreased post-release mortality of billfish released using circle hooks has paid large dividends.
Additionally, zones closed to pelagic longlining were established in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic seaboard of the United States in 2000 to reduce the dead discards of juvenile swordfish, billfish, sharks and other marine life. Since that time, there have been significant decreases in billfish interactions and discards that without a doubt have further benefited the conservation efforts for Atlantic billfish and the sport-fishing industry.
The 2012 Stock Assessment and Fishery Evaluation Report, produced by the National Marine Fisheries Service and commonly known as the SAFE Report, compares the catches of billfish before and after the closures were implemented. The report shows a significant decrease in billfish catches and discards during the years (2001-2003) immediately following the closures, with the number of blue marlin, white marlin and sailfish discarded decreased by factors of 49.7, 47.0 and 74.6 percent, respectively. Even more staggering are the catches from recent years (2005-2011) in which there were decreases of 61.6 percent in blue-marlin discards, 59.8 percent in white-marlin discards and 66.9 percent in sailfish discards compared to the years before the longline closures were established.
It’s hard to convince me that the reduction of billfish discards from pelagic longlines is not directly attributed to the longline closures, which subsequently had a tremendous impact on the recreational billfish fishing in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. However, recent proposed regulations by NMFS for the management of bluefin tuna in Amendment 7 could have a detrimental impact on the conservation efforts and gains made for billfish in recent years. Alternatives within the proposed rule would allow limited and conditional access to vessels to fish in the pelagic longline-closed zones along the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico.
NMFS is considering allowing a select number of vessels to fish within the current Florida East Coast longline-closed zone as well as the other closures in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. This information is hidden in a nearly 600-page document, which deals primarily with bluefin tuna quota reallocation across commercial categories. Specifically, the area in Florida that NMFS mentions in the report is the area north of 28˚ 17’ 10” North (just south of Cape Canaveral) and east of the 100 fathom curve (roughly 40 miles offshore).
NMFS states that “commercial data from within the closed areas may be used to evaluate the effectiveness and/or impacts of closed areas as well as for stock assessments or other management measures” and to “mitigate the potential negative impacts of other draft Amendment 7 alternatives that may be implemented.” Despite the limited number of exempted fishing permits allowed in these areas to conduct research already, the knowledge gained from these permits is apparently not enough to understand the benefits of these closed zones, particularly for juvenile swordfish and billfish.
Additionally, it seems that NMFS would rather try to balance the potential negative economic impacts for the pelagic longline fleet in exchange for negative impacts on the sport-fishing community and the jeopardization the conservation benefits of the closed zones. Both the Florida East Coast and DeSoto Canyons would be open year-round to a limited number of vessels that meet criteria, including having an observer on board and using vessel monitoring systems to report daily catches. Similarly, the Charleston Bump, currently closed February through April, would become open year-round, as a limited number of vessels would be allowed to fish in that area during that time frame.
NMFS estimates that about 20 pelagic longline trips will take place annually within the Florida East Coast area, with an alarming 80 trips in the DeSoto Canyons area. The revenue estimated to be generated from the commercial fleet fishing in the Florida East Coast closure and the DeSoto Canyons are $349,500 and $1.4 million, respectively. When NMFS evaluates the “mitigation” of potential impacts on the commercial fishing fleet from other alternatives in Amendment 7, it is imperative that they take a hard look at the potential biological and socioeconomic impacts that opening the longline closures could have on the recreational fishing community.
NMFS also needs to look at the decreased number of billfish interactions and discards since the closures were established in 2000. With white marlin and blue marlin still considered by scientists to be overfished but showing stabilization, why would NMFS consider opening closed areas that have demonstrated to be beneficial to not only billfish but also swordfish and other marine life?
It is no coincidence that swordfish stocks fully rebuilt following the creation of longline closures. NMFS must realize the benefits of the closures and the detrimental impacts that could result if even a limited number of vessels are allowed to fish within these closed areas.
The Billfish Foundation encourages all anglers to strongly oppose the potential access of pelagic longline boats into the closed zones. There simply is no justification that outweighs the potential negative impacts that could result for the sport-fishing industry in the United States.
NMFS will accept comments on Draft Amendment 7 until Dec. 10. The Billfish Foundation’s Advocacy Center (billfish .org/advocacy) has more information on Draft Amendment 7 and other potential alternatives that could impact recreational anglers. TBF will provide bullet points and form letters that can be used to submit comments to NMFS on this very important issue.
As a recreational fishing community, we must protect what has proven to be a great conservation tool for the United States, so we can continue to experience those days with release flags hung from every outrigger.