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My Short Life as a Longliner

Here's a vivid first-had account of swordfish longlining—and the toll it takes on billfishes.

About 10 years ago something similar to a gold rush was happening along the Southeast Coast of Florida. Rumor had it that commercial fishermen were making money hand-over-fist longlining for the most elusive warrior in the sea, the broadbill swordfish.

My best friend and I, not immune to the idea of big bucks, decided to cash in on the action. By chance, he had an old, wooden “New England” type boat docked behind his house—a hull he had reluctantly taken as payment for a debt which could not he met in cash. His attempts at selling it had proven futile. No one else wanted the relic but when the swordfish bonanza started, it dawned on us that the boat had tremendous potential.

We dry-docked the old vessel and capped the bottom in fiberglass, bought a diesel engine and had it installed and bought a longlining reel. Next came spare buoys, tuna floats, ice boxes, leader carts, a VHF radio, loran unit, hooks and more. Much more. Finally we became longliners.

The following is a glimpse at longlining.

On our usual fishing trip, we would motor out of Ft. Lauderdale's Port Everglades and turn south along the coast to Fowey Light and southeast of Miami from there. We would take a 90-degree heading out to sea toward an area commonly referred to as The Mountains. That's exactly what they are--high mountains on the ocean floor about 25 miles from shore between the Florida Continental Shelf and Great Bahama Bank. The northbound Gulf Stream crashes against the sides of these mountains sending megatons of deep-sea, chilled water up towards the surface. Where the warm surface water and the colder water collide, the stage is set for a feeding chain to be established. The small fish feed on plankton and everything else feeds on the bait, including squid, which comprise the major portion of the diet of swordfish.

First, we would lay out our first high flyer, a tall beacon on a large red float that has a strobe light mounted on top of a radar reflector. Attached to the high flyer is 150 feet of drop-cord, which in turn is clipped to the mainline with a Japanese-designed longline clip. Our mainline was 15 miles long and it drifted 150 feet below the surface, suspended by the drop-cords.

After the first high flyer was released, the task of laying out the gear began. Here's how such a procedure goes:

The boat pulls forward at near idle speed as the longline reel---a big spool the size of a 50-gallon drum-slowly spins, releasing approximately 50 yards of line between leaders. Each leader is about 150 feet long, and is usually of no less than 250-pound-test monofilament line. A 9/0, triple-strength, needle-eye hook is sleeve-crimped to the end of the leader, and each hook is filed needle-sharp because almost 20 percent of all swordfish taken are foul hooked and that requires a super-sharp hook.

The hook is threaded through the solid tail portion of a pound-size squid and brought down and through the middle of the body so that the squid hangs tentacles-down and in line with the leader. When drifting, the bait will stay about 350 feet below the surface.

Thirty-five feet up from the bait, a chemical lightstick is looped to the leader with a rubber band. The purpose of the lightstick is to attract baitfish and squid to the area of the hook. If a swordfish approaches (so the theory goes) everybody scrams except, of course, the squid that's being used as bait.

Three leaders are clipped to the mainline, then another drop-cord is released. A small float, called a bullet, keeps the drop-cord's end on the surface. After 10 bullets are dispatched, another high flyer is released. The portion between high flyers is referred to as a section, and we would lay out 10 sections in a night--or around 300 baited hooks.

Approximately three hours after laying out the first high flyer, the 15 miles of gear would come to an end and the last high flyer would be released. We would then motor upwind of the line and cut the engine. After taking a shower and fixing supper, it would be time to sleep. One of us would stay up as watchman to monitor the drift of the line and to stay clear of oncoming freighters. After sunset, the dome of lights over Miami Beach could be seen, and this glow would gradually sink to the southwest as the Stream slowly carried us north.

After the change of watch, usually around 3:30 am, the fresh watchman would prepare the stern for the morning haul. He would install the belts on the hydraulic reel, set the leader cart for hooks, check the motor and prepare breakfast.

At dawn, all hands would be on deck. After motoring up to the first high flyer and disconnecting it from the mainline, we would begin the process of stowing the gear. The mainline would be threaded through the boom block, then through a level-wind mechanism and onto the spool. At the pull of a lever, the drum would spin and the gear pickup would begin, reversing everything that was done the night before.

There is a thrill in bringing up a massive fish and watching the flash it makes in the deep grow larger and larger as it approaches the surface. We would usually anticipate a catch long before we could see it however. The change in the humming of the hydraulic system was one clue. The tension on the line, the piano-wire stretch of the leader and the vibrations of a leader clip were all adrenaline-stimulants and sure signs of some type of large fish.

Another sign of fish was what we called “rabbit ears”--when two of the white bullet floats would be pulled together on the surface from the weight of a heavy fish below. And, of course, tangles were another sign of a hooked fish. We have hauled tangles on board that literally filled the entire cockpit.

But not every fishy sign resulted in the boating of a broadbill. I remember how surprised we were on our maiden voyage, when we landed a blue marlin that must have weighed well over 300 pounds. It came up dead--as most fish do--and we marveled at it and photographed it thinking that we had made a rare catch. Not so, it turned out.

I remember one fishing trip in particular. We had gone fishless for two nights before deciding to fish the other side of the Gulf Stream southwest of Great Isaac Light, an area known to be productive. That night there must have been a migration of white marlin. We landed seven dead whites, one blue marlin, one sailfish and six broadbill.

As I write this I'm browsing through my longlining logbook. The initials “BF” are written on every page. BF stands for billfish, while “SF” was our code for swordfish. As hard to believe as it may seem, during the year of 1984 we landed as many blue, white marlin and sailfish, as we did swordfish. While I didn't denote the particular billfish species in the logbook, I do remember that white marlin fell prey to our squid baits more often than did blue marlin and sailfish, but sailfish were a close second.

Even dolphin were victims of our longline. You can imagine what 15 miles of floating gear does to attract dolphin. We would always have several handlines ready, and whenever we came upon a school of dolphin thick enough to bother with, we would idle the engines and drop the handlines over. The water literally boiled with these colorful creatures, and we thought nothing of boating 60 or 70 dolphin in a matter of minutes. Afterwards, we would continue pulling the longline. In the course of a single day, we might stop five or six times to catch dolphin, then return to the dock and discover that everyone else had flooded the market and our dolphin were worthless.

And that is what swordfishing, we slowly realized, was all about--a relentless slaughter of fish with very little financial gain. We weren't longliners for long. We had to get out of the business because we were too small of an operation. Our line was 15 miles long, but our competitors' lines averaged 25 miles.

I can only imagine the damage that longlining inflicts on our fisheries. I have heard of 50-plus-mile longlines, which the operators drift, work and re-bait, culling only the fish they want to keep, and never removing the line completely from the water.

While the longliners may have “percentage reports” on releases of species such as blue and white marlin, sailfish and small swordfish, what they release has little bearing on what is killed. Our experiences indicate that only 10 percent of all the fish that come up on a longline will be alive. The other 90 percent will come to the surface dead and stiff. About 50 percent of all sharks came up dead.  If that isn't proof of the deadliness of the longline, I don't know what is.

To illustrate this even further, let's assume that a certain vessel holds a record for releasing 100 percent of all the swordfish caught that weigh under 50 pounds, along with 100 percent of all the sailfish, blue and white marlin caught. Those reports would appear very praiseworthy to anyone who doesn't realize that they only apply to live catches, which are only 10 percent of the total haul. The truth is that very few people really know what goes on aboard the longliners, even though the fish are supposed to be public property. There's a certain secrecy about the bycatch of billfish that is second only to the secrecy surrounding the market that buys them.

Now,  swordfish numbers are down. What happened to them is being hotly debated. Some say that they were over-harvested. Some scientists say that they were here only because they were following a 20-year cycle of migrating squid.

Most longline boats that were used by small independent operators sit at docks with “For Sale” signs posted on their windows. Our boat sits behind our house, as abandoned as a ghost town after all the gold is mined.

It's just as well. If the scientists who defend the longliners are right, the swordfish are chasing squid in some other part of the ocean. At least the local billfish can breathe a sigh of relief. FS

This first-hand account is part of the Florida Sportsman classics series.

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