Short Sighted – NOAA’ s Push for More Longlines Jeopardizes Long-term Conservation Gains
by Theresa Labriola
In the past two years, the gatekeepers of our public trust resources have been pursuing an aggressive agenda of increased exploitation that has reached the ocean. When Wilbur Ross was appointed Commerce Department Secretary, he announced a goal of reducing America’s reliance on seafood imports, becoming more self-sufficient in fishing and perhaps even a net exporter. That’s a high hurdle because 85 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. comes from abroad. It’s also a valiant goal if we choose to promote innovation and sustainable fishing gear that opens new opportunities for a new generation of fishermen while protecting vulnerable ocean resources and rebuilding coastal fishing communities. Unfortunately, in response to Secretary Ross’s edict, NOAA Fisheries instead deployed a blunt strategy, resuscitating outdated industrial fishing gear to maximize our yield of swordfish.
NOAA Fisheries has its sight set on increasing the catch of swordfish in the Atlantic and Pacific. To achieve this goal, they intend to lure pelagic longline vessels back to ports to catch swordfish. Their ambition may backfire by disrupting nascent, smaller-scale swordfish fisheries, threatening the recovery of other valuable fisheries, harming recreational fisheries, and impacting protected species.
NOAA Fisheries Proposes to Allow Pelagic Longliners in Atlantic Bluefin Tuna Closed Areas
The average shallow-set longline (longline) extends more than 40 miles long with over 1800 hooks. The hooks soak in the water overnight waiting for a bite. They target swordfish, bigeye and yellowfin, but also catch Atlantic bluefin tuna, marlins, sharks and sea turtles.
In the past 20 years, NOAA Fisheries has established a checkerboard of longline-closed areas and gear-restricted areas (GRAs) to protect juvenile swordfish, overfished Atlantic bluefin tuna, as well as marlin and sharks. The Northeastern United States Closed Area was implemented in 1999. In 2014, NOAA Fisheries established Individual Bluefin Quotas (IBQ) for the Atlantic pelagic longline fishery and two new Gear Restricted Areas to protect spawning bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Mexico and safeguard the species recovery. These areas were identified as locations of high bluefin tuna concentrations and interactions with pelagic longline gear. The regulations worked. The longline fishery has not exceeded its bluefin tuna quota. Atlantic bluefin tuna longline mortality in the Gulf of Mexico has decreased by more than 80 percent. The closures have also spurred development of new and sustainable commercial gear including buoy-gear and green stick gear.
Despite this success, NOAA Fisheries is now advancing an amendment to eliminate the longline closed areas. Their stated goal is to allow longliners access to no-longline zones to increase swordfish, yellowfin tuna and bigeye tuna catch, but the action will also increase bluefin tuna catch and bycatch of marlin, oceanic sharks and sea turtles eroding their own success.
By overturning thoughtful management measures, NOAA Fisheries will allow unfettered access to the GRAs relying on one tool, IBQs, to limit the fishery based on the amount of bluefin caught.
By relying on one trick, IBQs, NOAA Fisheries is rewarding industrial fishing techniques that indiscriminately catch and kill ocean wildlife instead of rewarding and expanding innovative fishing. It foregoes an opportunity to conduct more comprehensive bycatch reduction research. Worse still, it could lead to a permanent re-opening protected areas to increased bycatch of a wide range of species. Instead of looking for a short-term solution to current industry problems, which may or may not be related to the closures, NOAA Fisheries should be exploring a range of ways to create a sustainable longline fishery, with minimal bycatch of all vulnerable species, for the long-term. The conservation gains achieved by the closures cannot be sacrificed for economic gain to a small segment of the longline fishery. Tell NOAA Fisheries maintain the seasonal Gear Restricted Areas in the Northeast and Gulf of Mexico to protect Atlantic bluefin tuna. These closed areas have reduced bluefin tuna catch and discards by the longline fishery and are the surest method to keep catch low to help rebuild this depleted stock.
NOAA Fisheries Tries to Overturn a Decades Old Moratorium on Pelagic Longlines In the Pacific
Pelagic longlines have been prohibited within 200 miles of the California coast since 1989. Ten years ago, the Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) and NOAA Fisheries considered and rejected a plan to allow a west coast based longline fishery outside the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The end result: California-permitted vessels are not allowed to fish using longline gear outside (or inside) the EEZ. The industry and NOAA Fisheries wants to change the status quo (the Council is scheduled to consider scoping at their November 2019 meeting).
The most ecologically compelling reason to keep a shallow set longline fishery out of the eastern Pacific is bycatch. The Hawaii permitted SSLL fishery which operates in the same area discards more than half of their catch including thousands of marlin and sharks. The mortality associated with bycatch and dead discards of marine life in pelagic longline fisheries throughout the world is appallingly wasteful.
The longline fishery poses a credible threat to protected species such as the leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles which take 15 to 30 years to mature. In the past twelve years, the Hawaii fishery has caught 193 endangered sea turtles. Most often, these sea turtles overlap with the Hawaii fishery east of 140°W, the same area where NOAA Fisheries proposes to increase longline fishing effort.
NOAA Fisheries makes the same argument in the Pacific as they do in the Atlantic, authorizing a west coast based longline fishery will increase domestic swordfish production. This near-sightedness fails to consider the negative impact to non-commercial resources and the ecosystem. Unlike Hawaii or the western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, the eastern Pacific has never been subjected to an industrial longline fishery. The removal of top pelagic predators can reshape the entire structure of ocean food webs, yet the California Current ecosystem still teems with sharks, seals, tunas, swordfish, whales, albatross and sea turtles in part because of the absence of industrial longliners. This diversity fuels a multi-billion dollar ocean based recreational industry including fishing, whale watching and bird watching. It is difficult to conceive of the death and destruction that will lie in the wake of indiscriminate longlines. It is unimaginable to even consider the use of such a blunt fishing tool in this delicate ecosystem.
By focussing on industrial longline fishing, NOAA Fisheries misses the opportunity to build smaller-scale, higher profit fisheries based on emerging sustainable gear, like deep-set buoy gear and linked buoy gear which can bring swordfish to market with minimal bycatch.
In the short term, NOAA Fisheries proposed actions may increase profitability, participation and production in the longline fisheries, but expanding longline fisheries in the Atlantic and Pacific undercuts decades of successful conservation measures to protect juvenile swordfish, spawning bluefin tuna, marlins and endangered sea turtles. Even if we increase our catch of swordfish tow-fold, we will barely dent the $11 billion per year seafood deficit. We may, however, reverse decades of conservation and economic benefits found through multifaceted management of our pelagic fisheries.