As I write this, I'm at 30,000 feet somewhere over the Mid-Atlantic coast. Out the starboard window in fact, is the Atlantic Ocean - very apropos for my worries on this cloudy Thursday afternoon. If you have any thought of being able to catch swordfish in the future, you should be worried, too.
Many younger readers may take for granted the truly remarkable and fabulous recovery of swordfish populations along our Atlantic coast. The old-timers, like me, may remember that back in the 1970s, anglers off Florida figured out that swordfish were abundant and would readily strike baits fished at night. Soon charter boats and tournaments were pursuing the prized game fish in a serious way - and collectively spending big bucks to do it.
Then the commercial longliners moved in. Long and short of it: In a few years the fishery was simply dead. No more tournaments, no more broadbill-charter trips. The longliners had for all practical purposes wiped them out.
Finally, roughly a decade ago, the federal government ended all commercial fishing for swordfish off much of the East Coast. Guess what happened? Populations came roaring back!
Now the good old days for anglers are back. And again we're spending lots and lots of money to catch broadbill.
So what's to worry?
Just this: The same federal government that ended commercial fishing is considering allowing the longliners back in.
Since that proposal was announced recently, a furor has erupted within the recreational-fishing community, as well it should. Such diverse groups as the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA; www.joinrfa.org), National Coalition for Marine Conservation (www.savethefish.org), Coastal Conservation Association (CCA; www.joincca.org), International Game Fish Association (www.igfa.org) and others have called on the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to abandon the idea of permitting up to 13 longline vessels (which, remember, each carries miles of lines with thousands and thousands of baited hooks) to fish off the Florida and Southeast coast - a proven nursery area for swordfish.
Without wishing to muddy up the already turbid waters, it's only fair to mention that there are serious reasons for such a proposal and these have to do with the fact that - stated as simply as I can - the U.S. has failed to meet its allotted swordfish quota under international agreement. There is concern that at some point we may have to give up a good part of the quota we're not using to other (especially developing) countries who could put it to use. (The RFA has the right idea, I'd say, pushing for the U.S. to propose that our unused broadbill quota not be doled out to other countries but left as a "swimming conservation reserve.")
But recreational-fishing interests seem uncharacteristically united, insisting that allowing longliners back into currently protected waters is not the way to deal with quota concerns. We've worked too hard for too long to get that protection and see swordfish stocks in our EEZ (exclusive economic zone) waters restored.
I hope everyone who reads this will share that concern and make it known to NMFS.
The groups listed above should have website links to do just that; you can find some of this information on this website, and on the RFA's site (where you'll find a letter you can print, sign and send off to NMFS).
Ditto CCA, which suggests we address our concerns, asap, to:
Highly Migratory Species Management Division (F/SFI)
Office of Sustainable Fisheries
1315 East-West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910
E-MAIL ADDRESS - [email]SF1.030107C@NOAA.GOV[/email]
(Include this ID in email subject line I.D.030107C)
Whether you fish for swordfish or not shouldn't matter. If you fish for sport in our oceans, you need to help. This is a time we need to be a real community of recreational anglers and do what our counterparts on the commercial side have always done so well and with such effect: be heard. If federal fisheries managers get a loud and clear message in the next week or two, it will have an impact.
The return of Atlantic swordfish to our near-coastal waters is definitely one of our bright spots in a generally mixed-at-best history of pelagic-fish management. Let's not lose it now.
- Doug Olander
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