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Dolphin, the Fish that Built a Thousand Boats

“We failed miserably! Clearly there's a problem with dolphin and we need to reduce the vessel bag limits. Anglers have been begging the council to do something for years, and we didn't.”

Dolphin, the Fish that Built a Thousand Boats

Jon Slay, Pensacola, with a true Marathon slammer, weighing in at 58.9 pounds. Not numbers you see too often anymore.

As much as I love catching big dolphin, I was sick of cleaning them by the hour after we returned to the dock, so me and the owner of the boat I was running, the 35-Cabo Dos Amigos, struck a deal.  We decided that after catching 10-gaffer dolphin we’d reel in our dolphin baits and go marlin fishing.

Boy, I miss those days. It was 2008 when I penned my favorite book, about my favorite fish, Sportsman’s Best: Dolphin Fishing. It was an easy write for me. I was in the middle of an all-out love affair with dolphin.  We made so many people happy, penciled in so many bucket lists.

charter fishing dolphin rick ryals
Rick Ryals is all smiles in the cockpit of the Dos Amigos with a nice gaffer dolphin.

You see, blue water fishing enthusiasts are created when someone is invited to join their neighbor on an offshore trip. And the most likely fish for our future boat buyer to encounter, will be a dolphin. The most inexperienced Captain dragging a plain feather along a weedline, has up until the last few years, almost always been able to catch dolphin.  I recall making the point in the book that dolphin are the fish that built a thousand boats.

Oh, how fast the years have gone by. Even worse, where have all the big dolphin gone? Ever since I wrote the book, I’ve been wondering if I’ve just lost my touch. Little did I know that Captains from Islamorada to South Carolina have been wondering the same thing. We can’t ignore it anymore. Dolphin are in trouble, and they’re going to need our best efforts, if they are going to return to attacking our baits.

Captain Jon Reynolds, has been involved in dolphin fishing his entire life. He has fished them recreationally, commercially, and as the Captain of Drop Back Charters, in Islamorada, since 1999. In 2016 he and Capt Ray Rosher, Miami, formed SAFE the South Atlantic Fishing Environmentalists. They understood that it was the anglers on the water that were most concerned, and perhaps even the most informed, about what was going on with our fisheries and felt they needed to harness that voice to get something done.

dolphin landings charts
This decline has been a long time in the making. Each section represents five year averages of mahi landings, dating back to 1990. Graph created in 2020 for an issue of Florida Sportsman

They were ahead of their time realizing how serious the lack of dolphin was becoming along Florida’s Atlantic coast. If you take a quick look at the two founders, and their board of directors, names like Brian Reynolds, Joey Spaulding, and Benny Spaulding you’ll quickly realize there may not be any group ever formed that has caught as many mahi.

They don’t have published research, but they have fish logs. I’m talking about 200 plus days a year of real world knowledge and about the day to day reading of the health of our mahi fishery. When the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council announced their insulting answer to an obvious problem, by lowering the recreational boat limit from 60 to 54, SAFE shared all our frustration. Former South Atlantic Council member Art Sapp has been quoted as saying “We failed miserably! Clearly there’s a problem with dolphin and we need to reduce the vessel bag limits. Anglers have been begging the council to do something for years, and we didn’t.”

florida keys dolphin fishing marathon
Young Miami-based angler, Carson Aguila (@carson_aguila1), 15, with dolphin caught off of Marathon.

“The stock is collapsing,” exclaimed Reynolds. “Our organization and countless other anglers have worked through the process for over 5 years now. It’s clear the council does not have the recreational angler in mind with the decisions they’ve passed down.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of seeing ridiculous decisions descend from the commercial friendly South Atlantic Council. I’ve watched red snapper take over every bottom fishing spot I’ve ever had, to the point of catching enough sea bass, or vermillion snapper, for dinner impossible.

Hence the reason for the Save The Mahi campaign, which reminds me of an earlier effort, from an earlier time, when anglers changed the state constitution, (1995) via the Save Our Sealife amendment, (The Net Ban) banning gill and entangling nets larger than 500-square feet in state waters. There were hundreds of red-hatted anglers bused into the State Capitol which at the time some said was the largest number of people ever to show up for the Governor and Cabinet to make a decision.

Where are the bus loads of red hatted anglers today?

There couldn’t be a more important fishery to the recreational offshore angler.  The mahi is most likely the gateway drug to every addicted offshore captain in the ocean.  Without mahi are the offshore boat trolling captains’ days numbered too?

graphs of recreational and commercial fishing catches of dolphin, aka mahi
A clear trend is happening, and it's not looking good for one of the most valuable fisheries in the world. Recreational landings on top, Commercial on bottom.

How could these catch numbers, from NOAA’s websites not get more attention?  How are we not better represented?  How could such a small number of commercial fishermen from North Carolina make such an impact?  All legitimate questions that need answers.

Florida Sportsman magazine Publisher Blair Wickstrom conceded anglers haven’t made their case clear enough to Council members.  But, like in most cases with these meetings the recreational angler can’t take the time off from work to testify in person.  But, Wickstrom said, “We can’t always make the meetings, but plenty of anglers made their comments public via the Council’s website regarding Amendment 10, but they were all but ignored.”

florida keys dolphin fishing marathon
Alex Vandegrift (@alex_vand8) with a South Florida cow.

Wickstrom went on to say that it’ll be much harder to ignore thousands of people all calling for stricter limits.  To limit themselves to save the fishery.

“Let’s get on public record demanding meaningful action be done immediately to save our mahi fishery,” Wickstrom said.  “We started the petition drive to once again let NOAA know we will not sit back any longer when it comes to protecting and rebuilding our mahi fishery.  The Save the Mahi petition has been up for two days and a few thousand have already signed it.

If you haven’t, go to  and sign it today.

The Save The Mahi petition calls for the Council to:

  • Reduce the boat limit for mahi from a proposed 54 fish to 30 fish.
  • Create a 2,000 lb maximum trip limit for licensed commercial boats.
  • Maintain the current 10 fish per angler bag limit.
  • Create a 20-inch minimum size for areas that don’t already have it.

NOAA fisheries is reviewing Amendment 10 and the council is considering possible further actions. This is our time, but time is of the essence.

We all need to be part of the solution.  We understand dolphin are highly migratory, and they don’t spend all their time in US waters, and foreign longliners undoubtably take a bite out of our stock.  But, we have to start here, and start now.  

Let’s take an honest look into the decline in both recreational catches and commercial landings.  Let’s look into the increase effort to catch these fish.  We have more anglers fishing today than possibly at any time in the past.  What impact is that having on the fish stocks?  We need to know.  

Unless we do something now, with dolphin landings forecasted to be even lower in 2021, we could be looking at a crash in the dolphin/mahi fishery in just a few years.  We have to dive into the declining numbers.  We need an updated dolphinfish stock assessment.

We can fix this, we can save the fishery, but getting a pro-commercial NOAA to act is never easy, and if we ever want great mahi fishing again, we can’t just sign a petition. We HAVE to let our elected lawmakers hear from us. Make phone calls, post on social media. We have to get involved now. Mahi grow extraordinarily fast, the 18-inch fish we save today will have one of our future offshore captain’s gaffing it as a 30-pounder next year.

The time to act is now.  Please sign the Save the Mahi petition:

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