Federal council lowers bag limits on mahi. Not far enough, South Florida anglers say

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A federal fisheries council voted Friday to lower the bag limits on mahi mahi from the Keys to the Carolinas. But to many people who make their living catching the popular deep sea sport and food species in South Florida, the new rules don’t go far enough.

Some actually want to see more restrictions on keeping the colorful migratory fish — also commonly called dolphin — because they say there just aren’t nearly as many as there used to be, and the ones they are catching are smaller on average. These fishermen say mahi are being overfished recreationally and commercially in the U.S. and especially internationally, where other nations are not policing conservation laws.

“That’s my Holy Grail, and that’s the fishermen’s Holy Grail, what we see. And if fishermen are asking for reductions, you better believe there needs to be reductions, because we don’t ask for reductions,” said Art Sapp, a Plantation charter fishing captain and member of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. “We want to be able to catch what we see. And in this scenario, we’re begging for reductions.”

Charter anglers don’t make such statements lightly, especially about mahi, a species that is a major economic driver not only to the fishing industry but also to Florida and the nation. But they say making proper sacrifices now is the only way to ensure the fishery will survive for future generations of professional anglers.

Mahi fishing brings in $450 million to the U.S. economy, and most of that flows to Florida, according to the nonprofit Florida fishing group South Atlantic Fishing Environmentalists, or SAFE.

Crew and anglers aboard the Captain Easy charter boat docked out of the Post Card Inn hold a couple of nice mahi they caught in June 2017. Charter captains say they now have difficulty finding large dolphin off the Florida Keys.
Crew and anglers aboard the Captain Easy charter boat docked out of the Post Card Inn hold a couple of nice mahi they caught in June 2017. Charter captains say they now have difficulty finding large dolphin off the Florida Keys.

“The dolphin species rings a social and economic bell larger than any other targeted effort on the United States Atlantic coast,” Jon Reynolds, an Islamorada charter captain and president of SAFE, said in a statement to the commission. “Nearly 600,000 recreational trips are taken annually with dolphin as their primary target on the Atlantic coast, providing an annual economic output of nearly $300 million in just Florida alone.”

Scientists lack a solid assessment of the real numbers of mahi mahi in the ocean, but they are trusting professional anglers’ observations that the fishery is not nearly as large and healthy as it once was.

“The average size of today’s fishery is substantially smaller than in the past, a sure indication of intensive exploitation,” Jerald Ault, chair of the Department of Marine Ecosystems and Society at the University of Miami, said in a letter he sent to the council Wednesday.

A greater stock of large fish, like mahi, is also important for a healthy marine ecosystem, Reynolds said, because their existence helps reduce ocean acidification, which in turn improves water quality and helps with coral reef restoration.

“The movements of large pelagic species like dolphin through the water column enhances biomixing and capture of atmospheric carbon, effectively cleansing our oceans,” Reynolds said.

The vote

On Thursday, a committee from the council narrowly approved reducing the bag limit on mahi from 60 fish per boat to 54. The 13-member council voted 9-3, with one member absent, on the proposed rule change to federal fishing laws Friday morning.

It is now up to the secretary of the Department of Commerce to accept or deny the rule change.

Florida commissioners wanted the limit to be 48 dolphin per vessel. Sapp was among the three people who voted against the reduction to 54 fish because he said it doesn’t go far enough to help the species rebound. He supported the 48-fish limit as a step that would make at least some difference.

“We’re being reactive to what we’ve seen here over the last 10 years, and a greatly reduced dolphin fishery. You all can talk all you want about the water temperatures changing and that affecting it, and it’s not,” Sapp said, responding to council colleagues from North Carolina saying rising water temperatures are more of a factor than overfishing in the dwindling mahi population.

“These fish live in the hottest of waters down through the Caribbean, and they’re still plentiful. It’s got nothing to do with the water temperature changing,” Sapp said.

While anglers consider larger “gaffer” dolphin to be around 20 pounds, they can grow up to seven feet and weigh as much as 88 pounds, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They live up to five years and can start reproducing at four to five months old, according to NOAA.

Uniquely regional issues

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council initially proposed lowering the per-boat limit to 48 dolphin, but the committee instead compromised at 54 because North Carolina fishermen say the lower limit would have disproportionate negative impacts on their industry.

For one, the fish species population is not as diverse year-round off the North Carolina coast as it is off Florida’s, and Carolina boats have to travel much farther offshore to hunt big game fish.

“In North Carolina, our charter fleet is less opportunistic. We have targeted seasons with each fish — wahoo, mahi, tuna, mackerel — carrying that particular season. Our typical length of trips is greater than 12 hours. And typical distances traveled are between 45 and 60 miles from shore,” said Anna Barrios Beckwith, vice chair of the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission and her state’s at-large representative on the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

Mahi mahi, also known as dolphin, are among the most popular fish to catch in the Keys.
Mahi mahi, also known as dolphin, are among the most popular fish to catch in the Keys.

Therefore, when people pay the money to hire a boat to target mahi in North Carolina, the fact that the typical charter of six people can keep up to 10 fish is a big draw, Barrios Beckwith said.

A significant lowering of the allowable catch would discourage many people from hiring a charter boat in the state, she said.

“In northern Outer Banks, clients must make a decision to travel to this remote area and spend money on renting houses and hotels. There’s not much else to do there except get sunburned, fish and eat some great seafood,” she said. “Current limits are needed to market these trips, even if the limits are not always achieved.”

North Carolina charter captains also disagree that there is any evidence to support the need for lowering the allowable catch.

“We find that the North Carolina charter fleet will experience unnecessary and inequitable economic damage,” Barrios Beckwith said. “We have received no scientific-based recommendation from the council’s science advisers that a reduction in harvest is needed.”

However, others on the council disagreed that even lowering the bag limit as far as 48 would negatively impact the North Carolina fleet in any significant way. Even on many good days of fishing, boats come back to the dock far short of the legal limit.

“I can’t see anybody not going to North Carolina because they can only catch 48 dolphin and not 60,” said Kyle Christiansen, Georgia’s representative on the council. “I just can’t.”

Barrios Beckwith voted in favor of the 54-fish limit, even though she said North Carolina fishermen will feel the most pain.

“In the true art of compromise, everyone walks away from the table unhappy. I see an East Coast vessel limit of 54 as a viable compromise,” she said.

Sapp said accepting the compromised bag limit is a wasted opportunity to make progress on saving the mahi species now instead of facing more drastic measures like fishery closures in the future.

“It blows my mind that this council can’t look at this and realize that something can be done now that will help the future, instead of having to react when the whole region is in trouble,” he said.

Pinpointing the problem

Jessica McCawley, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Division of Marine Fisheries and one of Florida’s representatives on the council, said since mahi are highly migratory, it’s difficult to pinpoint where the most overfishing is occurring. And while officials suspect much of it’s happening in other nations’ waters, they lack concrete evidence.

“Their movements are wide-ranging. And we have very little information about the magnitude of the international fisheries that are targeting this same population of dolphin,” McCawley told her colleagues. “FWC has written letters to NOAA and the State Department expressing concern about this fishery, especially this international component, and trying to get more information, get this data, get it from countries who are not reporting on the commercial side. And they’re definitely not reporting numbers on the recreational side, so this is not just a U.S. fishery, and we recognize that.”

Anglers hold mahi mahi they caught on a 2016 outing with First Choice Charters out of the Post Card Inn Marina at Holiday Isle.
Anglers hold mahi mahi they caught on a 2016 outing with First Choice Charters out of the Post Card Inn Marina at Holiday Isle.

But South Florida charter captains say much of the problem is the growing practice of commercial longline fishing.

As the name suggests, longlines are long stretches of hooked fishing line that are dropped in the ocean and later retrieved. It is an extremely effective — and critics say, destructive — way of catching large amounts of fish in a short period of time, putting rod and reel commercial fishermen like the ones in South Florida and the Keys at a tremendous disadvantage.

The federal government allows commercial anglers to lay 32 nautical miles of line at a time. Reynolds, with SAFE, said there are 70 longline vessels currently targeting mahi, most based in northern Florida and North Carolina.

“Doing away with longlining in dolphin fishing isn’t even on any agenda,” Reynolds said.

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