Swordfish study has opposition

To evaluate the success of a ban on destructive longline swordfishing in a large area off Florida’s east coast, a Nova Southeastern professor-researcher wants an exemption that would allow six longline boats to fish there for three years. The scientist, David Kerstetter, wants the exemption in order to compare catch and bycatch rates inside the zone to rates outside it.

The cost estimated by the National Marine Fisheries Service would be 5,499 dead undersize swordfish, 759 other billfish and somewhere north of 6,000 bycatch sharks — fish that the Pelagic Longline Closed Area was created in 2001 to protect.

Is that too high a price? A lot of sportfishing outfits say it is. In fact the outcry against the planned scientific study is so hot that NMFS has extended the original 30-day public comment period by six weeks to March 29.

A public webinar is scheduled for March 27 to facilitate that. The extra time also is billed as a convenience for regional fishery management councils to talk it over and weigh in.

The portion of the restricted zone where Kerstetter wants to work is in the shape of a right triangle. It’s about 80 miles wide at the base, which is about 90 miles off Cape Canaveral. From there to the northern limit is about 230 miles.

Swordfish stocks have been replenished since longline fishing was cut off 16 years ago. It’s still legal to fish for them using buoy gear. Unlike longlines, with hundreds of hooks, bycatch is negligible.

Kerstetter and Scott Taylor — owner of Palm Beach Fisheries, whose six longline boats would get the three-year exemption — both are on record as supporting the use of buoy gear, which uses about a dozen hooks instead of hundreds or thousands. Buoy rigs make it easy for fishing crews to release undersized fish, minimizing injuries.

The Billfish Foundation, which objects to the exemption permit, told NMFS this: Buoy gear, which takes no bycatch, replaced longlines in the then newly closed waters and proved to be compatible with recreational fishing and sustaining marine resources. Since the zone was closed, swordfish recovered and catches of sailfish, yellowfin tuna, marlin and other species increased, generating stronger economic returns to Florida’s east coast businesses and healthier marine resources. The closed zone is a conservation success, so why risk destroying it by allowing longline gear to return?

The International Game Fish Association, the Center for Sportfishing Policy, the American Sportfishing Association, the National Marine Manufacturers Association and the Coastal Conservation Association are among the organizations opposing the exemption permit.

The public webinar is scheduled for Monday, March 27, 1 to 4 p.m. See: www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/hms/compliance/efp/pll_efp_webinar.html. E-mail comments on the permit application to nmfs.hms.pllefp@noaa.gov. Include in the subject line the identifier: 0648-XF086.

Or write to Margo Schulze-Haugen, Highly Migratory Species Management Division (F/SF1), NMFS, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, Md., 20910.