Monday, January 7, 2008

Sad Day for Billfish!

The recovery of the billfish stocks along the East Coast of the United States and Gulf of Mexico has been impressive over the last decade. What was once an utterly devastated fishery has come been bouncing back, especially swordfish stocks, and recreational anglers and charter skippers have been enjoying it immensely. Yours truly, included. However, what made the rebound such a success was the closure of certain zones to the commercial longline fleet. Sadly, longliners are being allowed back into these zones, under the term "research." See the full story below, but if these zones get opened back up to serious commercial fishing, we're only putting ourselves back into a boat that almost cost us these magnificent fish to start with.

Government Approves Longline Research Fishing in Portion of East Coast Closed Zones

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced on January 3rd its approval of Exempted Fishing Permits (EFP) for two pelagic longline vessels to fish within portions of the east coast closed zones, with an additional third vessel approved as a backup. In 2001 the government closed waters to pelagic longline gear in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico to reduce bycatch of juvenile swordfish, sailfish, blue marlin, white marlin and other highly migratory species. White marlin, a severely overfished species, has benefited from the removal of pelagic longline vessels from within those closed zones. The most recent assessment of white marlin population size indicated a slight increase in their abundance, the first positive up-turn for white marlin in decades. TBF's experts are cautiously optimistic that this good news will prevent the government from recommending a listing of white marlin as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), an act that would trigger a wide range of restrictive measures. Curiously, the government has delayed issuing a formal opinion on the possible listing of white marlin, yet they have rushed forward to approve the longline research fishing into the zones providing real protection for the species - yet another indication of the lack of importance recreational fishing has with the current government decision makers.

The government describes its research protocol for the longline research fishing as "scientifically rigorous", a description The Billfish Foundation (TBF) takes exception to. The government's stated purpose of the longline fishing research is:

1. To collect information on the effectiveness of current bycatch reduction measures in closed areas where bycatch rates may be higher than in other areas and

2. To determine the effectiveness of [current] bycatch reduction measures [offset and non-offset circle hooks, bait requirements, bycatch release gear, and careful handling and release workshops] in these closed areas.

In reality the "bycatch reduction measures" in the conservation zones have been the prohibition of longline gear. Clearly the use of such gear will increase bycatch and incidental mortality in these areas. The real reason for the authorization is to allow for the landing of more swordfish in hopes that it will demonstrate to other nations that the U.S. is taking measures to increase its landing of the internationally allocated quota, which is in jeopardy of being reduced and given to other nations. TBF maintains that a better alternative would be for the government to authorize larger U.S. longline vessels to fish competitively and safely in distant waters of the north Atlantic where many other nations fish for swordfish.

Over a 12 month period, the "longline research fishing" will range from a few miles north of Ft. Pierce, Florida (28 degrees north latitude) proceeding north, seaward of the axis of the Gulf Stream, to the northern boundary (31 degrees north latitude) of the east Florida closed zone. In the Charleston Bump closed zone, "longline research fishing" will be allowed north of 31 degrees north latitude and following the 100 fathom contour to the northern and eastern boundaries of the Charleston Bump closed zone. "Longline research fishing" will include 289 longline sets over the year with an equal number within closed zones and outside those zones. Each longline set will use 500 18/0 non-offset circle hooks rigged with whole dead finfish bait and/or squid bait.

The government "conservatively" estimates the catch numbers to be:
- swordfish: 1,083 landed, 973 released alive, 360 discarded dead;
- white marlin: 9 released alive and 13 dead;
- blue marlin: 10 released alive, 14 dead;
- large coastal sharks: 113 landed, 124 released alive, 50 discarded dead;
- pelagic sharks: 21 landed, 81 released alive, 11 discarded dead;
- bluefin tuna: 0 landed;
- leatherback sea turtles: 2 interactions; and
- loggerhead sea turtles: 6 interactions.

It is interesting to note that the government anticipates the death of at least 27 marlin in this longline fishing research—a number that is more than 10% of the total annual landings allowed in the U.S. recreational fishery.

The government's notice is not clear as to whether both a trained federal observer and a federally trained staff person (contract scientist and/or graduate student) will be on board the vessels at all times during the longline research fishing. Most likely, it will be one or the other. The pelagic longline vessels will not be compensated for their "research fishing", as was the case for the multi-year sea turtle bycatch research project completed a few years earlier, the research during which the current "bycatch reduction measures" were identified in the cold waters of the north Atlantic.

TBF is relieved that the pelagic longline vessels are kept out of waters south of Ft. Pierce, but we are very concerned as to potential negative impacts in waters authorized for the longline research fishing. TBF will monitor the interaction rate with each species and the number landed, sold, released alive and discarded dead and report that back to you regularly.

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