NMFS HMS Panel April 2011

IGFA Participates in National Marine Fisheries Service Highly Migratory Species Advisory Panel

IGFA Conservation Director Jason Schratwieser recently attended the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Highly Migratory Species (HMS) Advisory Panel (AP) that was held in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA on April 5-7.  Overall, there were three major topics, all interrelated, that may affect recreational anglers.

Weak Hooks: Weak Argument

On April 1, 2011 NMFS announced that they will now be requiring pelagic longline vessels in the Gulf of Mexico to use weak hooks to reduce bluefin tuna bycatch.  NMFS had presented research results for weak hooks in the September 2010 AP meeting that showed that they did reduce the number of bluefin tuna landed, but nowhere did the research document that it results in reduced mortality, which is what is really called for.  Subsequently, IGFA issued a letter of opposition to the use of weak hooks and instead urged NMFS to close the Gulf of Mexico to pelagic longlining to protect spawning bluefin. 

Bluefin Category Reallocation: Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) U.S. bluefin tuna quota has been reduced to 948 metric tons (mt).  In addition, the amount of underharvest from the previous year that may be carried forward has been reduced to 10% of the baseline quota.  Both of which are good things, as bluefin are sorely in need of reduced fishing mortality.  Unfortunately, dead discards from the longline fishery total 160mt and threaten to cause the U.S. to exceed its ICCAT quota.  In response, NMFS has issued a draft rule that would effectively institutionalize longline discards by reducing allocation of all other categories (including recreational) by 7% across the board, while providing little incentive to reduce longline bycatch.  The IGFA will be issuing a letter of opposition and public comment on the proposed rule ends April 28.

Swordfish Revitalization: Catch it or Lose it

The north Atlantic swordfish stock has been considered “rebuilt” by ICCAT for the last several years.  In truth, much of this success is due to U.S. prior restrictions to the longline fishery that included mandatory use of circle hooks and time/area closures.   Even with a rebuilt fishery, the U.S. has not been able to fully harvest its ICCAT swordfish quota and there are some very valid concerns that ICCAT may redistribute some of the U.S. quota to other countries in future meetings.  In response, NMFS has a draft rule that would allow increased retention of incidentally caught swordfish in squid trawl fisheries.   In essence, this rule would allow the more incidentally caught swordfish to be retained and counted towards the U.S. quota, instead of just throwing them overboard dead. 

One Tangled Mess

In summary, NMFS is now tasked with juggling two confounded but diametrically opposed issues: reducing bluefin bycatch and increasing swordfish catch.   Weak hooks in the Gulf of Mexico are an effort to make the U.S. look better by reducing the number of bluefin “counted” as bycatch, but there’s little proof that they benefit bluefin themselves.   The U.S. needs to harvest more swordfish or there is very real danger that it will lose some of its quota to other countries—some of which do not use circle hooks and have much higher bycatch than the U.S.  However, most swordfish are caught on longlines, which is also responsible for the 160mt of bluefin bycatch that may very well be penalizing recreational anglers and other commercial categories.   The IGFA believes there are better alternatives.  Closing the Gulf of Mexico to longlining would reduce bluefin landings and discards by 111mt, while only reducing swordfish catches by 16%.  It’s time to think seriously about closing the Gulf of Mexico to longlining and coming up with alternative ways that U.S. commercial anglers can better harvest its swordfish quota.