The National Marine Fisheries Service recently announced that it had approved an Exempted Fishing Permit that would allow commercial longline vessels to re-enter the Florida East Coast Closed Zone and target swordfish.
The Closed Zone, established in 2001, was created to primarily protect juvenile swordfish as well as other species killed as by catch in the longline fishery that was conducted there, including billfish, overfished shark species, and sea turtles.
Buoy gear, which does not take bycatch, replaced longlines in the Closed Zone and is compatible with recreational fishing.
Since the area has been closed to longlining, swordfish stocks recovered and catches of sailfish, marlin, yellowfin tuna, and other species improved, increasing the economic return for Florida's sportfishing-related businesses.
However, Dr. David Kerstetter of Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale applied and was granted an EFP that authorizes six longline vessels to enter the Closed Zone to supposedly evaluate the effectiveness of the Zone by comparing fishing results in the Closed Zone with those in open areas.
The vessels would be allowed to sell their catch to ostensibly offset their expenses.
“This makes absolutely no sense at all,” said Recreational Fishing Alliance Executive Director Jim Donofrio. “The conservation benefits that have been accruing in the Closed Zone for the past 16 years will likely be lost. The fish we worked so hard to protect will now be caught and sold. And further, we don't need any more studies of the Closed Zone or the longline fishery. It's been studied and analyzed to death. NMFS has no business authorizing this unnecessary and potentially damaging project.”
Donofrio added that if NMFS was truly interested in gathering biological and catch per unit effort information from the closed area it would have utilized the recreational fleet which is more than capable of capturing this data.
By bowing to the wishes of the longliners, one of the most indiscriminate fishing gears, Donofrio indicated that the approval of the EFP further demonstrates NMFS's institutional bias toward the longline fleet.
Also at risk, besides the fish themselves, is Florida's $7.6 billion sport fishing industry and related businesses that support nearly 110,000 jobs.
“The dollars that might be generated by the sale of swordfish and other species at the dock is a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the economic benefits of healthy and sustainable commercial buoy-gear and recreational fisheries,” Donofrio said. “Why should we gamble with a closed area program that has been working to everyone's benefit?”
Some have pointed to the Trump Administration as the culprit behind the approval of the longline EFP,” but Donofrio believes otherwise.
“This is emblematic of a long-standing, systemic dysfunction within the National Marine Fisheries Service, he said. “NMFS has always had a cozy relationship with the longline industry. It's time to drain the NMFS swamp and do what's right for our publicly-held marine resources, and we strongly encourage newly-appointed Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to do just that.”