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Holding the Line on Longlines

Conservationists and sportfishing leaders work to uphold critical closures to indiscriminate commercial gear.

Sailfish (Islamorada, FL Keys) is among species benefitting from continued longline closures.

Fishing gear impact has great bearing on fish stocks and the very sustainability of fisheries. Unlike rod-and-reel fishing and handline fishing, which is considered “targeted fishing,” pelagic longlines are siblings, along with brother gillnet and sister fish trap, in a family of fishing gear that kills marine life indiscriminately, in the effort to bring a target species to market.

Due to the non-selective nature of longlines (typically composed of miles of set, baited hooks on ocean waters) and the rampant overfishing of primarily juvenile swordfish and billfish, their use was banned in Florida Atlantic waters in 2001, establishing a swordfish nursery conservation zone. Officially it is the East Florida Coast Pelagic Longline Closed Zone.

But there is pressure to allow longlines back into these waters and portions of South Carolina. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council was petitioned to approve an exempted fishing permit (EFP) in the closed zone, under the guise of research, by one David Kerstetter, and co-applicant Day Boat Seafood LLC. The application was denied in September of 2017.

Ellen Peel, President of The Billfish Foundation (TBF), says the longlining applicant has tried to scratch his way back into the fishery four times.

“The last go-round raised hundreds of public comments, from every fisheries conservation org under the sun, and recreational fishermen. There was not a single entity in favor of allowing longlines in, for any reason,” said Peel. “It seems the National Marine Fisheries Service is taking a creative approach, setting up a ‘research plan' to claim longliners would provide catch numbers and take the pulse of the swordfishery, when it is clear they only want to go in and catch swords for profit.”

Longline mortaliy of juvenile swords was at one time heavy here.

“No one with any sense of knowledge of fisheries management can consider a longline boat a research boat, and you can count me among them,” said Peel.

In short, the swordfishery, which was declared recovered in 2007, six years after the closure, needs to be allowed to flourish.

“At one point, the applicant swayed a scientist at Nova Southeastern University to form his own LLC to ‘skirt' the University, which to its credit backed out of any support for the longline re-entry once it realized the obvious conflict of interest that was involved,” said Peel, who personally submitted a letter to the university president to make them aware of the intentions of the applicant.

Not surprisingly, NMFS cited job loss in the commercial fishing industry since the closure was established. According to Peter Chaibongsai, Director of Conservation Programs for TBF, any commercial revenue loss caused by longlining closure pales in comparison to the direct economic benefit associated with recreational fishing in Florida.

“The resurgence of the swordfishery was and still is being enjoyed by South Florida charter captains, tackle shops, and the businesses that prosper from an increased participation in the swordfishery,” said Chaibongsai. “Many anglers became excited to be able to catch this fish on their own again, and spent real money to gear up for it, be it boats, tackle, and visitors travel here to catch this exciting gamefish.”


Legendary Miami offshore Captain Bouncer Smith has fished through the ups and downs of the swordfishery.

“It was around 1975 that the nighttime swordfishery became a bonanza 10 to 20 miles off Miami,” said Smith. “The number of commercial boats converting to longlining was off the charts. It got to where the sportfishermen struggled to fish out there, because their single lines would become entangled in the miles of longlines and baits out there!”

Smith is by heart a billfisherman, and with so much of his customer base desiring mahi-mahi, snapper and grouper, he doesn't target swords as much as some other area captains.

“I am honest with my guests. If they want a legal swordfish, I tell them to expect one fish in three trips. And with the daytime fishery figured out, I rarely swordfish at night anymore. Day droppers do very well here, and those in the Keys have even more success than we do along the Southeast Coast.”

Smith claims the science community fails to acknowledge that there is a resurgence of bluefin tuna off Florida. “The fish are increasingly migrating through here in winter. Anglers in the know are now beefing up their tackle—130-pound gear is being amped up for the occasion. And it would be terrible to allow longlines back into this territory. I fear it would decimate the bluefin numbers, along with the juvenile and adult swordfish we are finally enjoying again in fishable numbers.”

The ground gained through the pelagic longline closure hangs in the balance. “Honestly, I'm not encouraged,” said Ellen Peel. “I fear that NMFS is going to re-open the Florida Atlantic closed zone to a number of boats. It always seems that that agency comes out with their public notices at times when the public won't notice! They could very well do it around the time of the holidays this time around.”

Peel encourages recreational anglers and businesses to keep tabs on updates through their newsletter at Florida Sportsman readers can also find updates at FS

Florida Sportsman Magazine December 2019

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