• Published:August 11, 2017
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Florida's booming recreational swordfish industry just received a giant slap in the face.

For the last decade or so, anglers and charter operators in Florida have seen swordfish populations surge. Captains developed new ways to catch these tough-fighting, good-eating fish -- one of the premiere game fish in the world.
Swordfish tournaments that were once shuddered started popping up again. Tackle shops began selling more and more of the specialized tackle, bait and electronic reels used to deep-drop. Charter crews took more bookings. Out-of-towners reserved hotel rooms to come down and get in on the action. But most importantly, the swordfish population continued to show signs of growth. All of this success could be attributed to the feds decision to outlaw longlining in the Florida Straits.

In early August 2017, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a division of NOAA Fisheries, issued an exempted fishing permit (EFP) to allow longlining in two areas off Florida’s east coast, putting all of that economic activity and our swordfish populations in jeopardy. They made the decision despite comments from fishing organizations and anglers pleading for them to keep this fishery off limits to longlines. It’s a total kick in the crotch, but wait, it gets worse. These longlines won’t just be killing swordfish, they will also kill sailfish and marlin.

If you don’t know what a longline is, picture thousands of baited hooks suspended from floating lines that run for miles across productive fishing areas. This type of fishing is the most indiscriminate killer in the ocean today. Longlines not only kill their primary target, they also kill thousands of sea birds, turtles, porpoises, sharks, billfish and many other species of marine life.


When swordfish populations began to take a major dump in the 1980s and 1990s from continued pressure and over fishing, U.S. fisheries managers stepped in and outlawed longlines. The decision went into effect in 2001. The move was successful. In a decade or so, swordfish populations began to bounce back. Fishing for swords off of Florida was once again showing signs of life, and it kept getting better.

Swordfish populations along the entire East Coast of the United States rebounded, as did swordfish populations in the Gulf of Mexico. A NOAA Fisheries decision was actually showing some success and the agency seemed to be putting the resource first, but instead of focusing on rebuilding fish populations it went back to thinking about supporting commercial fishing. Rather than support the economic contribution of recreational fishing, which far outweighs the value of swordfish in a fish market, NOAA Fisheries wants to figure out just how many swords can be killed without completely destroying the species.

The language of the exempted fishing permit makes me furious. NOAA Fisheries claims it is issuing the longline permit to determine if the conservation measures they made 16 years ago are working. How blind is NOAA Fisheries? They see the fish caught by recreational anglers. They see swordfish tournaments growing in Florida. They know how well the measures worked. We can determine the success without killing more fish. This decision shows that NOAA Fisheries is more interested in lining the pockets of commercial operations.

“All anglers who fish off Florida’s east coast and the recreational fishing industry should be irate at NMFS, Office of Highly Migratory Species for not valuing or respecting recreational fishing by their approval of the Exempted Fishing Permit, which allows longline boats to fish inside Florida’s East Coast Closed Zone,” said Ellen Peel, President of The Billfish Foundation (TBF).

NOAA Fisheries issued the permit to Dr. David Kerstetter of Nova Southeastern University to “conduct research within two sub-areas” off Florida. In a statement, NOAA Fisheries said “the overall purpose of the research project is to evaluate pelagic longline catches and catch rates of target and non-target species from within two sub-areas in the northern portion of east Florida coast longline closed area and compare those to catch rates obtained from an area outside of the closed area to evaluate the effectiveness of existing closures at meeting current conservation and management goals under current conditions.”

It is well known that the Florida Straits are a nursing ground for Atlantic swordfish. The success of the longline closures has already shown that. This permit will harm undersized swords, as well as marlin and sailfish.

The International Game Fish Association (IGFA) was one of several organizations to submit comments against this permit to allow longlining. “We have great concern over the amount of regulatory bycatch that the study is projected to incur,” the IGFA wrote in its official comment to NOAA Fisheries. “According to the Draft Environmental Assessment issued by NMFS, if the EFP is approved and research is conducted for the three years requested, an additional 5,499 undersized swordfish, 759 billfish and 6,135 sharks that are prohibited from retention will be killed over and above what would take place in if the EFP was not issued.”

And of course any fish that are caught on longlines in this “research” project will be sold by the commercial longline boats that participate in the so-called study.

“The hypocrisy of the situation is blatant for the scientist, along with the owner of many of the longline boats that will fish in the zone,” says Peel. “Be prepared, the NMFS, HMS may issue more restraints on recreational fishing so there will be more fish for the research longlines to kill if their illogic continues. Keep in mind that the State of Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission opposed the permit being issued.”

The project will allow six vessels to fish at any one time for a period of up to three years with a max of 720 sets per year. Each set will have 600 circle hooks. When you combine the number of hooks on each set, we’re talking about 432,000 baited hooks going in the water every year, or 1.3 million over three years. These hooks will kill many thousands of animals. Those animals would have a much greater value if left alone to support Florida’s recreational fishing industry.

Florida has 2.4 million anglers and the related industry generates an economic impact of $7.6 billion and supports 109,300 jobs. This decision will have a wide impact across all of Florida’s offshore fishing. As anglers, we must ban together to revoke these dubious decisions. Reach out to your representatives and get up on your soapboxes.

To read more about the EFP visit nmfs.noaa.gov.