If the U.S. government wants to create new opportunities to harvest more swordfish in order to fulfill its international quota by creating a new open-access commercial handgear permit, it should happen anywhere but South Florida.
That was the overriding gist of comments at a public workshop conducted by NOAA Fisheries officials Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale.
The agency that manages commercial and recreational fisheries in federal waters is proposing several alternatives under draft amendment 8 to the consolidated Atlantic highly migratory species fishery management plan. The amendment is aimed at drawing more participants into the U.S. commercial swordfishery using rod and reel, handline, harpoon, bandit rigs and green-stick (trolling) gear that catch little to no unintended species such as sea turtles and marine mammals. NOAA officials say swordfish stocks are fully recovered from past overfishing, and it’s time for U.S. fishers to catch the full amount allotted by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which hasn’t happened for years.
Among the proposals in the amendment: allowing recreational fishers to become new commercial fishers by purchasing a $20 highly migratory species permit; allowing charter- and headboat permit holders to catch swordfish for sale when not on a charter; creating a Florida swordfish management area extending from the Florida-Georgia line south through the Straits of Florida and including Gulf waters of the Keys, where commercial fishermen could land one sword per trip; and restricting sales to permitted dealers only.
NOAA fisheries management analyst Rick Pearson said it’s possible more than 1,400 new permits could be issued in Florida, but that likely is an overestimate.
“This is the first time we’re proposing an open-access permit for swordfish since 2000,” Pearson told the gathering at the Broward County Main Library. “We are trying to approach it conservatively. We don’t know how many additional permit holders there will be and what kind of landings we are going to get.”
The proposals were assailed by many in the audience of mostly commercial buoy-gear fishers, seafood dealers and equipment sellers.
Buoy-gear fishers — who operate mainly between Marathon and Palm Beach — hold limited-access swordfish permits, which they say cost tens of thousands of dollars on the open market. Although they could still harvest unlimited numbers of swords under draft amendment 8, they say there’s no room for additional competition.
“We have spent thousands of dollars on the permit. Now you want to come along and issue a permit for $20 for anyone who wants to catch a swordfish,” Broward buoy gear swordfisher Lyla Hamby said. “We have buoy boats on top of buoy boats. On top of that, you have recreational boats on the weekend. We have such a small area we fish. I have to go to Key Largo to find an open spot to put my gear in. The whole thing is going to be a big mess.”
Hamby added that a better way to harvest more quota would be to allow buoy gear fishers to deploy more gear.
Others in the audience ridiculed the proposed requirement for sales to permitted dealers only, saying the new entrants in the commercial fishery likely would ignore it. Currently, there are widespread reports — but no convictions — of recreational anglers illegally selling swordfish to markets and restaurants. Those unreported “black market” sales are not counted in the U.S. quota and probably still wouldn’t be under the new amendment, audience members said.
“The issue isn’t that the fish aren’t being caught. It’s that they’re not being reported,” said Scott Taylor of Day Boat Seafood in Lake Park. “Everybody on the corner knows someone that will buy a swordfish. Everybody knows there are swordfish being caught and not being reported. You are rewarding the people that are breaking the law. All you are going to do is make an enforcement issue, which is already impossible down here, even worse.”
Several commercial fishers said they would have no problem with new handgear permits for New England, the mid-Atlantic or the Gulf — but not here.
“Have you considered a zero catch limit for South Florida? That would make me very happy,” commercial swordfisher Kenny Josack of Plantation said.
Pearson promised that NOAA would take all comments — from South Florida and elsewhere — into consideration when developing a final rule, which will be released later this spring. The new rule could take effect as early as this summer.