Fishing | swordfish

New rule could provide opportunities for new entrants into the commercial swordfish fishery

For about $20, South Florida recreational swordfish anglers could become commercial fishers under a new rule amendment proposed by NOAA Fisheries.

For about $20, South Florida recreational swordfish anglers could become commercial fishers under a new rule amendment proposed by NOAA Fisheries.

The agency is seeking public comment on a tentative plan to expand the U.S. commercial harvest of swords by issuing open-access, year-round permits to fishermen in Florida, the northwest Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. Caribbean. The preferred alternative would set trip limits by region and restrict fishing gear to rod-and-reel, hand line, harpoon, green-stick (commercial trolling gear), and bandit rigs (electric or hydraulic reels)

NOAA says swordfish stocks are now fully rebuilt; Amendment 8 would allow fishermen to fulfill the U.S. commercial quota allotted by the International Commission for Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).

“The main purpose is to provide U.S. fishermen with additional opportunities to harvest swordfish with gears generally low in bycatch,” said Randy Blankinship, NOAA’s southeast U.S. branch chief of highly-migratory-species.

A numbers game

Last year, U.S. commercial swordfishers brought in about two-thirds of their quota. Federal fisheries managers are concerned that any unused quota could be given out to other, less conservation-oriented countries.

“I can’t remember the last year we fully harvested it, but it was awhile back,” Blankinship said.

The agency’s preferred alternative under the amendment proposes initial retention limits of one sword per vessel per trip in the Florida swordfish management area, which extends from Jekyll Island, Ga., south to Key West, and includes Gulf waters of Monroe County. This is roughly the same area where pelagic long-line gear for swordfish was prohibited in 2001 mainly to protect juveniles. Higher trip limits are proposed in the northwest Atlantic, Gulf, and U.S. Caribbean. Fishermen could sell their catch only to permitted dealers. Blankinship said limits could be lowered midseason if the quota was being filled too quickly.

For a small fee

Recreational anglers and charter- and head-boat operators are expected to cheer the proposal.

But conservationists are concerned that increasing the harvest will result in more juvenile swords being killed. And commercial buoy-gear fishermen in South Florida who operate under costly, limited-access permits fear their businesses will be devalued, even though they would still be able to catch as many swordfish as they want.

NOAA Fisheries will accept public comment through April 23. The agency will hold a conference call/webinar from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. March 11, followed by a public hearing from 5 p.m. to 7p.m. April 10 at the Broward County Main Library in Fort Lauderdale.

Blankinship said a final rule could be out as early as this summer, with possible implementation in January 2014.

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