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Where are the Mahi: Exploring the Drastic Decline in Dolphin Catches

South Atlantic dolphin fishery crashes while managers propose non-action

Where are the Mahi: Exploring the Drastic Decline in Dolphin Catches

Mahi fishing has been on a significant the decline over the last 5 years, new regulations must be put in place to avoid fishery collapse of one of the most valuable fish in the world. Sign the petition to save the mahi today.

Anglers throughout Florida have been writing letters, attending meetings and making social media posts in an effort to bring attention to the noticeable decline in the dolphinfish, mahi, fishery. Most urgently, they have been highlighting the lack of slammer dolphin (fish over 20 pounds). But reports from Islamorada to Jacksonville indicate a shortage of all fish, regardless of size.

Anglers are advocating for, even demanding, a cut back in vessel limits. Now. They’re asking the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, and the state of Florida, to reduce the number of fish they’re allowed to catch.

big bull dolphin
The age-old tactic of leaving a hooked dolphin in the water to attract others may no longer work... if there aren’t other dolphin in the water.

In addition to tighter recreational limits, anglers and conservationists are advocating for a daily limit on the amount of dolphin that may be taken by commercial boats. At present, commercial fishing boats are allowed unlimited quantities. You read that right—no daily limits!

For nearly twenty years, efforts by recreational anglers, and even the Council have tried, unsuccessfully, to put daily commercial trip limits in place. In 2004 the Council passed a 3,000-pound trip limit, only to have the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) throw out the limit based on the assertion that the dolphin were only a bycatch. The Council tried again in 2016 and again in 2020. We still don’t have a daily trip limit for the commercial longline dolphin fishery. And that’s with an ever-growing number of dolphin landings by dedicated dolphin fishery commercial longline boats.

“I have noted fish declines especially in recent years. Mahi limits need to be at most 5 per person or 30 per vessel counting anglers.”

— Kevin Muench, PhD, Marine Fisheries

And on top of the growing commercial pressure, you have an increasing number of recreational anglers. The number of total fishing licenses sold in Florida in 2021 are up nearly 300,000 over pre- COVID 2018. (2,198,044 vs. 1,904,566, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

The lack of big dolphin isn’t news— anyone who has fished for dolphin off the east coast of Florida in the last five years knows there are far fewer dolphin to catch today than in the past. Unfortunately, the very agency in charge of managing the dolphin fishery doesn’t share the same concern nor the sense of urgency. Former South Atlantic Council member Art Sapp (2018-2021) recently summed it up pretty clearly: “We failed miserably.”

The indifference at the Council level is in the face of hundreds of public testimonials, and their very own data showing drastic declines in recreational catches and commercial landings over the last five years. The South Atlantic Council, after more than four years of work on the dolphin fishery, is choosing to basically do nothing about it.

The Council is moving forward with an underwhelming and insufficient plan, Amendment 10, to address the dolphin fishery. The plan is scheduled to go into effect in 2022, and its most aggressive-fishery saving-component is reducing the boat vessel limit of dolphin from 60 fish to 54 fish. Six fish.

WHO’S CALLING THE SHOTS?

peanut dolphin jump
Despite concerning numbers and personal testimonies, the SAFMC proposes minimal changes to the current regulations.

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, headquartered in Charleston, S.C., oversees the conservation and management of offshore fish stocks along the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and east Florida to Key West. That mission includes developing plans needed to manage fishery resources within what’s known as the Exclusive Economic Zone. That zone, or EEZ, extends offshore from state waters (three miles in the South Atlantic) to 200 nautical miles (outer boundary varies with proximity to Bermuda, the Bahamas and Cuba).

Council Members are citizens from each of the southeastern states (NC, SC, GA and the east coast of FL) who are knowledgeable of the fisheries. They serve three-year terms and are appointed by the Secretary of Commerce from lists of nominees submitted by the governors of the states.


The Council meets four times each year, once in each of the southeastern states. Before final action on any proposed rule change is taken, the Council involves the public through scoping meetings, public hearings and input at Council meetings. Proposed changes are sent to NMFS for further review, public comment, and final approval by the Secretary of Commerce.

In addition, the Council receives input and recommendations from other state and federal agencies, universities, and members of the public who serve on various committees and panels. These include Advisory Panels, the Scientific & Statistical Committee, and Stock Assessment Panels and public comment.

WHERE WE STAND NOW

dolphin recreational catches
The indifference at the Council level is in the face of hundreds of public testimonials, and their very own data showing drastic declines in recreational catches over the last five years.

The Council approved Amendment 10 for formal secretarial review during its June 2021 Council Meeting. That plan calls for a recreational vessel limit reduction of dolphinfish from 60 to 54 fish— ridiculously short of what’s needed to stem the collapse in the dolphin fishery.

However, the door has been opened, just a crack, for us to possibly influence a change to Amendment 10. During the September Council meeting, there was a question about adding someone from Maine to the Advisory Panel, so Amendment 10 was not sent to NOAA. We have a small window to possibly change Amendment 10 before it goes through the rulemaking process with NOAA Fisheries and the Secretary of Commerce.

Amendment 10 also contains actions that implement various other minor management changes in the fishery including revising recreational accountability measures, accommodating possession of dolphin and wahoo on vessels with certain unauthorized gears onboard and removing the operator card requirement.

Amendment 10 is teed up and ready to go unless we make a very impactful case to get the Council to re-examine what’s right in front of their eyes.

“Having seen decreasing trends up to 2016, it was still a shock to see such a sudden dearth of these fish. Just nominal sightings of small ‘peanut’ dolphinfish.”

— Barry Lasher, Ft. Lauderdale angler

Let’s start with what anglers on the water are seeing. More than a hundred anglers, charterboat captains and experts took the time and effort to document their feelings regarding the dolphin fishery on the Council’s website during the first few months of 2021, prior to the Council’s June 2021 meeting. These comments are all public record:

“I have noticed significant reductions in quantity and size of dolphinfish in the last 5 years and I believe there should be changes made to size and limits.” —Robert Malloy, Coral Springs 

“I’m a PhD in marine fisheries in research for government and universities as well as owning charter vessels. I have noted fish declines especially in the recent years with either lax or non-protection regulations. Mahi limits needs to be at most 5 per person or 30 per vessel counting anglers.” —Dr. Kevin Muench, Ft. Lauderdale

small dolphin swimming
Dolphin stocks are not only crashing but the average size continues to get smaller, many anglers say.

“The days of loading the fish box and spending hours at the dock filleting our catch are long gone. I have no problem lowering the maximum limit to 30 mahi per trip and that is more than most of my customers can take home and eat.” —Capt. Jimbo Thomas, Miami

“I see a huge decline in the big fish in the area. There are so many people on social media these days posting (60) 18” fish and they think this is cool and no one is doing anything to stop this.” —Ryan Buel, Palm City

“The current limits for charters for hire of 60 dolphin is silly. The average group chartering a boat for the day with 5 fishermen aboard will never need to kill 60 fish. It’s a waste. I support a 20-30 fish limit per boat for both for hire as well as recreational.” —Nick Catania, Islamorada 

“I have grave concerns about the dolphin fish fishery. First concern is commercial trip limits, or lack of. Especially longlines. Second concern is the 60 fish boat limit for private and charters. Both are ridiculous. Please reduce the take so we can all share in this once awesome fishery. I as a private recreational angler does at no time ever need 60 fish on my boat. And nor should I be of any less important than the commercial boat with no limit at all.” —Greg Short, Ocala 

“I support a reduction of total vessel limit from the current 60 to 30.” —John Durkee, Merritt Island

commercial fishing for dolphin
In 2014, 70 or so longline boats caught 1.2 million pounds of mahi, almost doubling the previous year. The following four years: declines.

“The dolphin fishing has declined in the Florida Keys in recent years. I used to commercial fish (hook and line) for dolphin in the Keys. It is no longer economically viable. I urge you to reduce the bag limit to 30 per boat, reduce the commercial take and eliminate commercial longline fishing for dolphin.” —Bart Valdes, Marathon

“I’ve been fishing out of Port Everglades since 1980. Many of us have noticed a sharp decline in the size of dolphin being caught from Hallandale to Lake Worth. Large dolphin are becoming very hard to come by and 2020 was probably the worst year I’ve seen. Many of the anglers in my group support increasing the size limit from 20 to 23 inches at the fork and reduce the amount per angler from 10 to 5 along with decreasing the vessel limit from 60 to 30.” —Robert Pustizzi, Plantation

“The dolphin fishing in the keys was the worst since 1998 when I started fishing for them in Islamorada. Thirty fish limits on charter boats. That is enough fresh fish for any one day.” —Fred Klauk, Ponte Vedra Beach


“This summer (2020) was worse than last summer, and last summer (2019) was worse than 2018, based on my records. We still catch a few big bull dolphin, but those catches have dropped in number as well. I think a reduction in the bag limit, possibly to 5 mahi per angler, would help” —Capt. Willie Howard, West Palm Beach

“The current limit of 10 mahi per angler and 60 per vessel is too generous, with the stock being severely pressured. Please reduce the limit to 5 per angler and 30 per vessel, with the 20-inch minimum expanded to the Gulf Coast as well.” —Ron Mitchem, Pompano Beach

“The recreational limited of ten 20-inch fish per angler with a boat limit of 60 fish is absurd. You need to look at increasing the size limit to 24 inches and four or five fish per person with a 20 or 30 fish per vessel max.” —Anthony Biodolillo, Lake Worth

“I am the owner/operator of a charter boat in Islamorada, Florida. Dolphin is one of the biggest factors in the success of my business. I ask the Council to take immediate action to implement a commercial trip limit.” —Jonathan Fordham, Islamorada

If written online public testimony was strongly considered, the vessel limit would have been lowered from 60 to 30 fish at the June meeting. But, it wasn’t.

commercial catches of dolphin
While commercial dolphin fishing effort has increased, the catches still continue to decrease.

And what of the alarming trends in catch data, from NOAA’s very own website, over the last five years? These figures scream for immediate and substantive action.

The total recreational catch, using NOAA’s estimates of the total recreational catch show a decline from over 3 million fish in 2015 to a little over one million in 2020 – a decrease of around 68%. When graphed over time, the numbers certainly appear to be trending in the wrong direction, and this is happening while the fishing effort is believed to be increasing, not decreasing.

As for commercial landings in pounds there was a 71.7% drop in landings from 2015 compared to 2020, an incredible 661,092 pounds. And just from 2019 to 2020 there was a 311,659-pound drop, in ONE YEAR. That reduction is more than the entire 2020 catch total of 259,680 pounds.

“Now is the time for the recreational angling community to demand safeguards be put in place to prevent a directed longline fishery for dolphin.”

— Coastal Conservation Association Florida

CCA Florida supports re-examining dolphin management to develop more conservative measures for this fishery, including lower recreational boat limits and commercial trip limits.

During the Council’s Amendment 10 process, CCA used its “Sounding the Alarm” news alert to bring attention to how the commercial longline industry has manipulated NOAA into disregarding the Council’s recommendations. “Members of the South Atlantic Council moved to disallow longline gear in the commercial dolphin fishery as part of Dolphin-Wahoo Amendment 10.” However, as CCA stated, “facing opposition again from NOAA Fisheries and commercial interests, another proposal was put forth that would exempt commercial boats from the longline ban.”


CCA’s advice: “Now is the time for the recreational angling community to demand safeguards be put in place to prevent a directed longline fishery for dolphin.”

Jon Reynolds, a charter boat captain in Islamorada and president of SAFE, South Atlantic Fishing Environmentalists, double-downed on CCA’s position regarding longlines: “The rapid development of an intense pelagic longline fishery for dolphin, harvesting enormous quantities of dolphin at the peak of their spawning season allocates a grossly disproportionate percentage of the catch to a very small group of users, in direct violation of the dictates of the Magnuson Act.”

“I used to commercial fish for dolphin in the Keys. It is no longer economically viable. Make the limit 30 per boat and eliminate longlines.”

— Bart Valdes, Marathon

In 2014 the 70 or so permitted longline boats caught 1.2 million pounds of mahi, almost doubling the year before. And as for the following four years, you had four straight years of declining landings going from 1.2 million in 2014 to 441,442 in 2018. (NOAA SE Fishery Center, May, 21, 2020)

As of this writing the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) noted that they would have liked the Council to have taken stronger action and hope they will reduce the vessel limit further in the future. For Atlantic state waters, the Commission expressed interest in reducing the recreational vessel limit to 30 fish per vessel and possibly modifying the bag limit. The FWC plans to address dolphinfish at the December 15-16, 2021 meeting.

THE CRASH 

dolphin landings charts
Long-term trends show a concerning pattern. Each section represents five year averages of mahi landings, dating back to 1990. Graph created in 2020 for an issue of Florida Sportsman

If Amendment 10 with the current bag, boat and size limits go forward as planned, which include no commercial daily boat limit, we predict the dolphin (mahi) fishery will crash. The lowest overall catch number, all modes, in the past 30 years should be sounding alarms from Key West to Maine.

What’s blocking appropriate action? If you’ve attended, via Zoom or in person, any of the recent Council meetings you’d agree with the observation that one of the reasons why the SAFMC hasn’t reacted with stricter limits is due to a small but vocal group of charter and longline boats from North Carolina.

As for North Carolina, the catch total numbers quickly tell you why they’re fighting to keep things status quo. The Tarheel State more than doubled the percentage of their catch from 2017 to 2020. The total recreational catch from NC in 2017 was 282,967 pounds, 12.3% of the total, but in 2020 they caught more than 28% of the dolphin.

North Carolina landings for ALL recreational catches – private anglers, charters, headboats went up 6,307 pounds +2.2% during this period while in Florida catches for the same timeframe went down 1,264,190 pounds. -66%.

And it’s not just the Atlantic coast. We’re hearing the same from tournament directors and anglers throughout the Gulf of Mexico. “The mahi population in the Gulf of Mexico has declined over the last five years,” exclaimed Chris Galati, of Galati Yacht Sales, with six boat dealerships along the Gulf. “In numerous trips to the Loop Current we have found both weedlines and floating debris are producing far less fish.”

Tagging studies continue to show migratory patterns haven’t changed. “We are still catching dolphin on Brazilian logs,” said an exasperated Islamorada boat captain, Jon Reynolds. “But instead of 12 gaffers and five slammers we catch three gaffers and one slammer. The fish are still there, just far fewer and much smaller.”

WHAT WE NEED TO DO

save the mahi logo
Moved to action by what you’ve read or seen? Click here to sign the petition.

So, if you’re following along, you’re probably wondering if “they” didn’t take the public testimony and comments to heart, and they didn’t act upon their own catch data and landings what good will a petition do?

Good question.

“We can’t quit,” said Capt. Jon Reynolds. Aside from running his charterboat, Drop Back, out of Islamorada, Reynolds has been a tireless advocate for stricter dolphin limits, attending as many Council meetings as he can.

“There is definitely a noticeable decrease in size and abundance of dolphinfish in the Atlantic,” explained Reynolds. “And it’s not just that we need to lower the vessel limit for recreational anglers we have to institute maximum trip limits on the commercial longliners or outright ban them altogether.”


The current 60-fish, and proposed 54-fish vessel limit, is way too many fish. Even a 30-fish per vessel limit is more than 90 percent of recreational anglers ever keep. But, if 30-fish is deemed palatable for the bulk of the user groups, we need the much stricter, but still generous, limit now.

We also need maximum daily limits, not to exceed 2,000 pounds, for commercial boats. And in a perfect scenario you ban longlines all together and keep a healthier hook and line commercial fishery.

Let’s demand a 30-fish vessel limit for dolphin, a 10-fish angler bag limit, a minimum size limit of 20-inches and a 2,000 pound maximum commercial daily limit. FS

Florida Sportsman Magazine Dec/Jan 2021


IT’S TIME FOR ACTION.

WE NEED TO BE HEARD IF YOU WANT TO CATCH A DOLPHIN (MAHI) ON FUTURE OFFSHORE TRIPS.

PLEASE SIGN THE SAVE THE MAHI PETITION TODAY.

GO TO www.floridasportsman.com/savethemahi and sign the petition to:

  • Reduce the Boat Limit for mahi from a proposed 54 fish to 30 fish.
  • Create a 2,000 pound maximum trip limit for licensed commercial boats.
  • Create a 20-inch minimum size limit for the entire Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands

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