If sailfish populations are in trouble, you couldn’t tell it here in South Florida. Sailfish tournaments from Palm Beach to the Keys typically require double-digit releases to win or place. And it’s often easier for weekend anglers to catch sailfish than some other offshore species such as dolphin and tuna.
But the sailfish picture might not be as bright throughout the rest of the Western Atlantic.
In 2009, scientists from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) — an organization that operates like the United Nations for fishing — conducted a stock assessment and found that sailfish in the Western Atlantic possibly were overfished. Overfished means being caught faster than a stock can reproduce. The group recommended that catches not exceed 2009 levels — about 566 tons — along the U.S. East Coast, Gulf of Mexico, U.S. Caribbean and South America.
Fast-forward to 2014, and ICCAT’s recommendation remains the same, pending a new stock assessment slated for this year. When NOAA Fisheries’ Highly Migratory Species Division issued its sailfish report last week, it took out the word, “possibly” as being too wishy-washy and stated sailfish were overfished and that overfishing is still going on.
Randy Blankinship, Southeast branch chief for the Highly Migratory Species Division in St. Petersburg, said abundant catches here don’t mean the stock is doing well overall.
“Those catches are certainly encouraging, but they do not mean the Western Atlantic stock is increasing,” Blankinship said. “They are influenced by fishing pressure from other countries.”
Sailfish are caught commercially with purse seines and pelagic longlines or by small coastal boats in Caribbean and South American waters. That’s in contrast to U.S. law, which prohibits buying or selling sailfish caught in the Atlantic or Pacific. If a U.S. longline vessel accidentally catches a sail, it must follow prescribed procedures to try to release it unharmed.
U.S. tournament anglers are required to use circle hooks in conjunction with live or natural baits to maximize the chances of a live release. In Florida, there’s a one-fish-per-person bag limit and a minimum size of 63 inches from the lower jaw to the fork of the tail. Anglers aren’t even supposed to pull sails from the water unless they intend to keep them. Everyone who fishes for Atlantic sails is required to buy a $20 vessel permit from NOAA Fisheries and report landings at hmspermits.noaa.gov.
Although the catch-and-release ethic is firmly embedded in the U.S. recreational angling community, that’s not necessarily the case among fishermen in foreign waters. Many more of the spindle-beaked jumpers could be taken out of the water than are being counted.
Said Blankinship: “The fact is that [scientists] within ICCAT recognize there’s a lot of uncertainty in the stock assessment.”