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August 12, 2011

Five Fishery Bright Spots

Five U.S. success stories — fisheries that regained health through conservation

Florida Sailfish
By Terry Gibson

I’ve been in the conservation business long enough to know that it’s a mistake for anglers to use local, on-water observations as the ultimate filter about a given fishery. For example, a stock might be going strong at the heart of its range but dwindling toward the edges, where populations are naturally lower. Anglers living where the fish thrive assume that’s the case everywhere.

But I simply couldn’t believe it when I read that the International Commission on the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas had determined that the western Atlantic sailfish population teeters on the threshold of overfishing, according to a 2009 assessment.

For some 25 years, I’ve fished off southeast Florida — arguably the best sailfish waters in the country. Every veteran offshore captain I know in this region would swear on his mother’s grave that the sailfishing has never been better. In fact, captains and anglers I’ve interviewed from North Carolina to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, agree: The phenomenal conservation ethic and behavior anglers have demonstrated in the fishery have resulted in a robust western Atlantic population and stupendous fishing. So why the discrepancy between the stock assessment and what anglers in the Southeast are experiencing?

ICCAT divides Atlantic sailfish into eastern and western stocks from a management perspective. The eastern stock clearly shows a sharp decline, due primarily to harvest off the West African coast by artisanal fishermen and by the European commercial fleet.

The entire western Atlantic stock, all sailfish that swim in waters off South and North America, comprise one population. However, billfish biologists suspect north and southwest Atlantic divisions. In addition, most of the western Atlantic harvest takes place in the Caribbean and off South America. (Brazil, for example, harvested 432 million metric tons in 2009.) As IGFA conservation director Jason Schratwieser put it, “The amount of harvest in the southern hemisphere is probably why the entire western stock is potentially overfished.”

Natural fluctuations in sailfish ­populations might be a driver behind the record release numbers documented by longstanding Florida tournaments like the West Palm Beach Fishing Club’s 76-year-old Silver Sailfish Derby. The world’s longest-consecutive-running billfish tournament, the Derby has provided an ­uninterrupted stream of sailfish-catch data.

John Jolley, the club’s 30-year board chairman and ­president, was also one of the first marine biologists to study western Atlantic sailfish. He points out that billfish live fairly long — tagging data confirmed that sailfish can live at least 17 years — and have wide natural variations in reproductive success. No one really understands the causes behind these variations, but Jolley quickly points out that despite skyrocketing recreational participation in the fishery, “the fishing is as good or better than it’s been over the past 50 years.”

Ellen Peel, executive director of The Billfish Foundation, testified at the ICCAT meeting last June: “The long-practiced, catch-and-release ethic by U.S. anglers and the coastal nature of the species are likely the two primary reasons the western stock has not plummeted over the years. The additional conservation benefits that have resulted from the pelagic longline closure off Florida no doubt strengthen the status of the stock.”

In other words, the strong conservation ethic and political will of anglers have helped keep the western Atlantic stock pretty much to the right of the overfishing mark.

The sailfish success story in the western Atlantic might have been dramatically different — tragic, really — without the billfish catch-and-release conservation ethic. The ethic first took root in the West Palm Beach Fishing Club when members became repulsed by the wasteful practice of hanging up dead sailfish for show on the dock.

Club members created the concept of release flags, which became a grand tradition. That led to tag-and-release flags, which encouraged the extremely important spirit of cooperation with scientists and managers for data collection and sharing knowledge.

“Release-idermy” (release rather than skin mounts) and the adoption of circle hooks represent a growing conscientiousness toward long-term protection. “I love this story,” says Jolley. “It’s a success story of self-regulation that resulted in a better fishery and more caring and educated anglers.”

About the Author: Terry Gibson is principal owner of North Swell Media LLC, in Jensen Beach, Florida. A southeast Florida native, Gibson has served in various editorial capacities for respected fishing, hunting and surfing publications. These days, his primary focus is on marine conservation and communicating science to saltwater enthusiasts.