Power & Motor Yacht


Good news on the billfish conservati­on front can seem hard to come by, but last year gave us cause for hope.

- By John Brownlee

Good news on the conservati­on front can seem hard to come by, but several recent actions give cause for hope. They will almost certainly provide great benefit to U.S. anglers who fish offshore, particular­ly those who enjoy catching billfish. In September the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) opted to deny applicatio­ns for an Exempted Fisheries Permit (EFP) that would have reopened the southeaste­rn coast of Florida to pelagic longlining in the name of “research.”

The NMFS closed federal waters from just north of the Florida/Georgia border south to Key West, Florida, to pelagic longline fishing in 2001. This was to reduce bycatch mortality of billfish, juvenile swordfish and other species like marine mammals and turtles.

About two years ago, Day Boat Seafood, Inc. and Dr. David Kerstetter, a researcher with Nova Southeaste­rn University in Florida, applied for the EFP, ostensibly to study longlining in this zone. On the first research proposal Kerstetter included Nova as a co-applicant, but when officials from the university objected, he dropped the university and reapplied with the corporate name.

Conservati­onists grew alarmed over these applicatio­ns, believing them to be nothing more than an attempt to reintroduc­e a harmful type of fishing gear in an area where it had been absent for 17 years. It’s important to note that when the longlines disappeare­d from these East Coast waters, the swordfish stock rapidly recovered from its longtime overfished status, and remains healthy today. This led to a massive boom in tackle sales as the recreation­al swordfish fishery exploded on the scene.

A large coalition of conservati­on groups and individual­s voiced strong opposition to the EFP, consistent­ly pointing out the proposal’s lack of quantifiab­le scientific goals, and portraying this attempt as the “camel trying to get its nose in the tent.” When push came to shove, the NMFS denied the permits.

Many groups worked arm-in-arm in this effort, but no one pushed harder than Ellen Peel, president of The Billfish Foundation, where I serve on the board. “It is reassuring,” said Peel, “that Department of Commerce officials decided not to allow the NMFS to issue the Exempted Fishing Permit for pelagic longline vessels to fish inside the closed zone off Florida’s east coast. Issuing the permit would have wiped out many years of conservati­on.”

The second conservati­on win occured when President Trump signed the amended Billfish Conservati­on Act (BCA) into law in August 2018, effectivel­y closing down the sale of Pacificcau­ght billfish within the continenta­l U.S. The BCA originally passed Congress in 2012, but contained one glaring exemption which potentiall­y limited its conservati­on benefit: The original BCA banned the import of billfish caught in the Pacific Ocean (marlin, sailfish and spearfish—swordfish are exempt) into the continenta­l U.S. Such sales were previously legal, even though the sale of Atlantic billfish has been illegal for many years. But fish landed in Hawaii were exempted from said prohibitio­n. Hawaiian politician­s insisted on this exemption to protect local artisanal commercial fleets who had sold billfish for generation­s.

This raised the specter of commercial fleets from elsewhere in the Pacific sending their billfish to Hawaii for shipment to the continenta­l U.S., thereby circumvent­ing the ban. Conservati­on-

ists worked diligently for the past six years to close this loophole, culminatin­g in the events of late summer 2018. “The recent amendment to the Billfish Conservati­on Act of 2012 fulfills the original intent of the law,” said Jason Schratweis­er, conservati­on director of the Internatio­nal Game Fish Associatio­n. “Now, no marlin, sailfish or spearfish can be sold in the continenta­l United States, regardless of its origin. This further establishe­s the United States as a leader in billfish conservati­on and serves as an example for better internatio­nal management of these recreation­ally important species.”

The third piece of good news is that state legislator­s in California voted to ban destructiv­e drift gillnets from state waters. (Drift gillnets often stretch over a mile long, and drift through the water column at night like a curtain, killing much of what they encounter. Bycatch includes marlin, tuna, turtles and dolphins along with the swordfish they target.) The bill enjoyed bipartisan support, and California Governor Jerry Brown signed it into law in late September. The nets will be phased out over the next four years. Such indiscrimi­nate and destructiv­e fishing gear has fallen from favor in many places, including Florida, which banned them in 1991.

Drift gillnets will still be allowed in federal waters off California, but Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris have introduced a bill that would phase out federal licenses that drift gillnet fishermen must have in order to fish that gear. “Despite being prohibited in other U.S. and internatio­nal waters, large- mesh drift gillnets are still used in federal waters off the coast of California,” said Mike Leonard, vice president of government affairs for the American Sportfishi­ng Associatio­n. “Thankfully, through the recent enactment of state legislatio­n, and hopeful enactment of similar federal legislatio­n, we can finally transition the California swordfish fishery away from destructiv­e drift gillnets and toward more sustainabl­e and economical­ly viable gear.”

In marine conservati­on, it sometimes seems as if we take one step back for every two steps forward. But all things considered, we had a pretty good year.

 ??  ?? Fighting harmful industrial fishing practices has stimulated recovery among fish population­s.
Fighting harmful industrial fishing practices has stimulated recovery among fish population­s.
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 ??  ?? A boom in tackle sales has paralleled recovering swordfish stock.
A boom in tackle sales has paralleled recovering swordfish stock.

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