Angers Op-Ed: Federal decision threatens swordfish, baffles conservationists

As published in Florida Today.

In a move that has created a universal sense of disbelief among anglers and conservationists, the federal Office of Highly Migratory Species recently announced its approval of a permit that will allow a fleet of six longliners into Florida’s East Coast Closed Zone to target swordfish and other species.

The permit to plunder was granted to a single commercial fishing operator whose fleet has now gained access — under the guise of research — to the most pristine fishing grounds for the one of the most sought-after sportfish off the east coast of Florida.

As George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Nearly two decades ago, recreational anglers led a conservation movement to save the troubled swordfish species in the western Atlantic. The average weight of a landed swordfish was approximately 60 pounds due to over fishing and the cause was eventually traced to far too many juvenile fish being caught and killed on indiscriminate commercial longlines.

Due to the efforts of local sportsmen-conservationists and a diverse group of grassroots supporters, swordfish nursery areas were closed to the United States pelagic longline fleet in 2001, creating Florida’s East Coast Closed Zone.

Fast forward to today, 16 years later: the Atlantic coast of Florida is known for some of the best big-game fishing in the world, including an unrivaled sailfish fishery. The scientific wing of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas has declared the western Atlantic swordfish recovered. Local recreational anglers and thousands of tourists travel to this area every year to experience these majestic fisheries, and they pump a lot of money into the economy and toward marine conservation while doing it.

But now, despite full-throated opposition from the State of Florida and recreational anglers across the country, the federal Office of Highly Migratory Species has granted access to a single commercial fishing operation “to do research on the effectiveness of closures at meeting current conservation and management goals.”

It does not make sense to any reasonable observer.

How will dropping thousands of hooks on longlines into this conservation zone and killing thousands of undersized swordfish, billfish and sharks prove the effectiveness of the conservation goals for this area?

The federal government is simply trading away the most significant marine conservation victory in the last two decades for one commercial longline company to return to prosecuting a dirty fishery.

As anglers, we are proud of the significant conservation story in Florida’s East Coast Closed Zone, and we are working to encourage the Administration to take another look at this controversial and contradictory decision.

It is time to reexamine the entire process that allowed such an unsound proposal to be approved in the first place. The original objectives of the Exempted Fishing Permit program may have been reasonable, but the program is increasingly being abused by self-serving entities seeking to circumvent public process for their own advantage.

Congress must close the loopholes in the program, and they can do so by passing the Modern Fish Act, which will establish specific criteria to permit applications and formalize an expanded review process that requires greater regional stakeholder input on the merits of each permit application.

Today, a great marine conservation victory in the South Atlantic is in danger of unraveling and there will likely be others under attack in the future.

Jeff Angers is President of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, a nonpartisan organization focused on maximizing opportunity for America’s saltwater recreational anglers.