Florida sport fishermen protest plan to expand longline commercial fishing

Florida sport fishermen protest plan to expand longline commercial fishing

Florida’s huge recreational fishing community reacted furiously to a proposal to allow experimental longline fishing in areas that had been closed for the protection of juvenile swordfish.

About 500 letters, e-mails and faxes arrived at the offices of the National Marine Fisheries Service by Monday, the last day to comment, with about 90 percent opposed, said Susan Buchanan, spokeswoman for the fisheries service.

The agency is considering a proposal from the Fisheries Research Institute, a commercial fishing organization, to allow six longline boats to enter closed areas to test techniques and equipment for reducing the accidental catch of sea turtles, bluefin tuna, marlins and juvenile swordfish.

Ultimately the organization plans to seek the return of the boats to portions of the closed areas in the Gulf of Mexico, off New Jersey and off the southeastern United States, although not the swordfish nursery of the Florida Straits.

The longline industry says it needs to test techniques to find safer ways of catching fish.

But since news of the proposal spread last week, fishing clubs and conservation groups have mobilized to fight it.

“We need to protect what we have, protect our waters and protect the fish from overfishing,” said R.J. Boyle, president of the Southeast Swordfish Club and owner of a Deerfield Beach store specializing in swordfish art and fishing tackle.

“It’s happened before, and we don’t want it to happen again.”

Florida Sportsman magazine posted the “gut-wrenching news” on its Web site and urged readers to contact federal officials with their opposition. The Fort Lauderdale-based Billfish Foundation on Monday filed a detailed critique of the proposed study, saying it would be a scientifically questionable exercise that would simply allow a destructive fishing practice to return to areas that are beginning to recover.

“Feds Want to Permit Commercial Swordfish Longline Boats to Fish in Closed Areas!” read an alert sent out by Coastal Conservation Association Florida, a fishing group based in Tallahassee. “The longlining ban has resulted in a dramatic recovery and increased abundance of sailfish, swordfish, dolphin and wahoo in these areas. Putting six commercial boats into these protected areas under the guise of `research’ to reduce longline by-kill is unwarranted, unnecessary and bad public policy.”

The fisheries service staff will summarize the comments for William Hogarth, the agency’s director. A decision will come quickly. The work is scheduled to start within the next week or so.

Longlines stretch 20 or more miles and dangle up to 2,000 baited hooks in the water.

Along with drift nets, spotter planes and other high-tech fishing gear, they have allowed modern fishing boats to sweep high-priced fish from the oceans with unprecedented efficiency. A study published in 2003 in the journal Nature found that longlining and other modern commercial fishing techniques had killed off 90 percent of the ocean’s large predatory fish.

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