Schoonveld: Crony Capitalism at Sea

The author with a recreational-caught swordfish caught offshore of Florida.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (in the Department of Commerce) is charged with managing and sustaining America’s populations of ocean fish occurring off its shores. Like others in the federal government’s alphabet soup of agencies (VA, IRS, NEA and others) the NMFS has a poor record. Often, it’s only after populations of fish valuable as game fish and/or for commercial catchers become so meager as to be on the verge of extinction does the NMFS step in to halt over-exploitation.

So it was in 2001 when the fisheries service established a closed zone off Florida’s east coast prohibiting commercial long line fishermen trying to catch the few remaining swordfish which were previously abundant in the area. It was relatively easy to see the devastation occurring from the practice – for swords, as well as other species killed as by-catch in the long line fishery, including marlin, sailfish, several shark species and sea turtles.

Long line fishing involves deploying miles and miles of lines, each with up to 2500 baited hooks per line. These baited hooks attract and catch most species of predator fish.

Depending on the species caught, the fish may or may not live long after being hooked and any of the fish not salable are discarded back into the sea – dead, wounded or living.

Since then, in the area closed to long lining, swordfish stocks have recovered substantially and catches of sailfish, marlin, yellowfin tuna, and other species have improved. So has the economic return for Florida’s sportfishing-related businesses. It’s a straight forward progression. End the indiscriminate slaughter. Swordfish in particular and other species in general rebound. Recreational fishing booms.

One would think the success would be a feather in the NMFS cap. Evidently not, since the service recently announced approval of an Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) that would allow commercial long line vessels to re-enter the Florida East Coast Closed Zone to target swordfish.

Dr. David Kerstetter of Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale applied and was granted an EFP that authorized long line vessels to set lines in the Closed Zone. His research is supposedly a method to evaluate the effectiveness of closing the zone to long line fishing by comparing fishing results in the Closed Zone with the results of operators in open areas. It’s not pure research. The long line operators are allowed to sell their catches with a percentage going to – you guessed it – Dr. Kerstetter’s research program.

To recap – long line fishermen move into an area and as their catches increase, the number of fish in the area decreases to the point the government stops long lining. Once that happens, fish stocks increase and now that things have been put right, the NMFS permits long liners to come back to see if they can mess things up again.

This makes absolutely no sense at all. The conservation benefits accruing in the Closed Zone for the past 16 years will likely be lost. The fish the Zone was designed to protect will now be caught and sold. Other studies of the affect of long lining both in the Florida Closed Zone and other areas have been conducted and analyzed. NMFS has no business authorizing this unnecessary and potentially damaging project.

If NMFS was truly interested in gathering biological and CPUE (catch per unit effort) information from the closed area it would have utilized the recreational fleet which is more than capable of capturing this data. This clearly demonstrates NMFS’s institutional bias toward the commercial fleet at the expense of the recreational sector.

Also at risk, besides the fish themselves, is Florida’s $7.6 billion sport fishing industry and related businesses that support nearly 110,000 jobs. The dollars that might be generated by the sale of swordfish and other long-lined species at the dock is a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the economic benefits of fishing using targeted methods primarily by recreational anglers.

Why would the NMFS gamble with a closed area program that has been working to everyone’s benefit? Because NMFS has always had a cozy relationship with the long line industry. It’s a swamp full of entrenched bureaucrats who manage to fly under the political radar most of the time. This issue isn’t particularly partisan since overseers in the National Marine Fisheries Service have favored commercial fishing interests much more than sport and recreational interests for decades regardless if Ds or Rs were running the show.


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