Photos by Tom Spencer
Chalking Up Wins
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. (Full disclosure: I serve on the foundation’s board of directors.) “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 Pacific-caught 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. Conservationists 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 and 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.