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Fishermen's Journal

Longline Crisis At The Door

Dangerous Commercial Fishing Practice Could Be Permitted Soon


Steve Bledsoe


for South Coast Sportfishing

May issue, 2201


There has been a lot of talk this past year about a potential pelagic longline fleet invasion into Southern California waters. I want to impress upon you how real the present longline threat is to us, and move you to action.

            I don’t, however, take a stance of anti-commercial fishing. I believe that the resource belongs to all of us. However, I am strongly opposed to the wastefulness of the commercial longline industry and its total disregard for the well being of the resource. 

What’s the Problem?

Pelagic longlining is a form of commercial fishing that employs the use of thousands of baited hooks suspended from miles of drifting mainline. The line is set adrift in the open ocean in an effort to capture migratory pelagic species like tuna, marlin, swordfish and sharks.

            A typical longline vessel is usually no smaller than 80 feet in length and is equipped with a large winch or spool that can hold a mainline of 40 miles in length or longer.  The vessel’s crew will deploy this mainline by attaching a float to the end of it and then letting it run overboard off of the spool as the boat pulls away. As the mainline plays out, crewmen attach shorter lines, or leaders, to it with baited hooks on them. The distance between hooks can vary from 20 to 100 yards and is controlled by the crew depending upon the targeted species.  At these settings, a single 40 mile long mainline will carry between 700 and 3500 baited hooks. 

      The book and very popular Hollywood movie,

The Perfect Storm, was the story of a New England-based longline vessel, the Andrea Gail, that was lost in October 1991. What the author of the book and Hollywood would lead us to believe is not quite true. The crew of the Andrea Gail was depicted as a group of quarreling misfits who had to contend with worn out equipment and substandard accommodations.

            This may have been true of the Andrea Gail, but it is not in any way a true representation of today’s pelagic longline fleet. This fleet is equipped with state-of-the-art fish storage equipment, electronic fish-finding gear, navigational capabilities and weather computers. They are very, very good at catching fish.

Why should we be concerned about pelagic longliners off our coast?

In terms of the history of commercial fishing, the extensive use of longlines is relatively new, yet in a very short span of time, it has proven to be among the most destructive fishing methods known to man.  Our experience with commercial longlining in the U. S. Is best demonstrated by the story of the recent collapse of the swordfish fishery in the Atlantic Ocean. In the 1960s, domestic and international longliners began targeting swordfish in the North Atlantic. Up until that time, gillnets were the most popular tools of the trade, which had replaced a very long tradition of selective harpoon fishing in the region. 

            Longlining became popular very quickly for two reasons. Gillnetting was not any more popular in the 60s than it is today, and many people believed, or were led to believe, that longlining was a clean fishing method and could be made more selective than gillnets by controlling fishing depths and bait types. 

            Because of this belief, many commercial fishermen were allowed to convert their gillnet gear to longline gear.  The second and probably more powerful reason longlining became so popular was the fact that it was so efficient.  Efficient, not in terms of selectivity, but in terms of how effective it was at killing fish. Longlining became so popular that by the 1990s it was responsible for capturing 98% of all of the domestic caught swordfish in the United States.

            Four short years ago, in January of 1997, the National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) published Amendment 1 to the Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Swordfish.  In this document, the NMFS told a story of wastefulness and devastation by the commercial fishing fleet more horrifying than any tall tale the most radical environmentalist could dream up. 

            In 1997, the document stated, “The fishable biomass of North Atlantic swordfish is estimated to have declined 68% between 1960 and 1996.”  It predicted that, “If the North Atlantic stock continues to decline at the same rate as it has since 1978 and particularly since 1986, the commercial (swordfish) fishery may not be viable in approximately 10 years.”  The NMFS was, believe it or not, being very optimistic in their prediction of the future of the Atlantic swordfish fishery. It totally collapsed in less than 4 years from the date of the release of the NMFS report. 

            To many, the possibility of fishing the oceans clean of life is hard to imagine. How can a few boats with a bunch of baited hooks do so much damage? The answer is actually very simple. Unlike harpoon fishermen who fished the swordfish for over 100 years without damaging the stocks, longlines cannot distinguish the difference between mature and juvenile fish.

     To wipe out a species, all that needs to be done is kill the young before they have a chance to reproduce and the older generation will take care of itself.  The NMFS report pointed out the fact that despite the setting of size minimums for marketable swordfish (which allows the legal marketing of some immature fish) the longlines kept on killing in unbelievable numbers. 

     According to the report, “Since 1991, estimates of the annual dead discards have steadily increased from 227 metric tons in 1991, to 363 metric tons in 1992, to 409 metric tons in 1993 and to 508 metric tons in 1994.” 

     The real impact of the destruction of the Atlantic swordfish comes to light when you realize that these discards were sub-legal, immature fish of less than 41 pounds dressed weight.  Also, this increase in the annual tonnage of discards was not due to a higher successful spawning rate of the declining population of mature swordfish, but it was the direct result of annual increased fishing pressure. 

            The efficiency of the killing power of the Atlantic longline fleet was probably best demonstrated in an article written in 1997 by the publisher of The Big Game Fishing Journal,  Gary Caputi. He wrote, “For almost 150 years, the average whole weight of swordfish harvested was over 300 pounds. Since the introduction of longline gear, the average whole weight has dropped to 90 pounds. In 1995, 88% of the domestic swordfish harvest was comprised of sexually immature juvenile swordfish, most at least two years away from spawning.” 

            It is estimated that the U. S. Atlantic commercial longline fleet alone was discarding an average of 497,000 pounds of illegal, juvenile swordfish annually. Is it any wonder why this fishery collapsed and is classified today as being commercially extinct?


Why be concerned about swordfish when they’re not often targeted as sport fish?

Here’s why we should be concerned about swordfish. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Our concern for the health of our local fish stocks goes far beyond just swordfish. Given the indiscriminate killing nature of longlines, we know they are killing unwanted juvenile fish, and they also they must be killing a lot of other unmarketable species as well.  The truth of the matter is that nearly 70% of what is caught by the longline fleet is discarded back into the ocean as unmarketable bycatch.

            Among the long list of innocent victims are protected marine mammals, endangered sea turtles, birds, sharks, pelagic rays, sailfish and marlin. For every 30 tons of marketable tuna and swordfish a longliner brings to the dock, he has dumped 70 tons of unwanted dead animals back into the ocean! Wastefulness on this scale is very hard for anyone to even imagine.

            The tragedy of what took place in the Atlantic Ocean and then in the Gulf of Mexico before the collapse of the longline fishery in that part of the world, stands as testimony to the deadly nature of this kind of gear.  The 1997 NMFS report had this to say about the destruction of Atlantic billfish stocks. “Bycatch of billfish by the longline fishery is a major concern in the Gulf of Mexico and off the East Coast of Florida. Depending on gear, time and area, less than half the billfish captured and released by the U. S. swordfishery are believed to survive. The cumulative mortality rate is roughly 80% of those captured.” 

            The report goes on to say that since the introduction of longline gear in the Atlantic, the populations of blue marlin, white marlin and sailfish declined roughly 70%, 82% and 54% respectively since the early 1960s.  In simple terms, this means that more than 68% of the total marlin and sailfish population was wiped out.

            The record of the destruction of Atlantic marlin stocks, which themselves were not even targeted by the longline fleet, is a clear indication of what we would face if this gear was to be placed off our beaches. Not only our local striped marlin population would be affected, but the damage inflicted upon our local mako shark population would be devastating.

            Our local waters from the Channel Islands of San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and Anacapa, south to beyond the Mexican Border is a very rare mako shark nursery.  Thousands of juvenile mako sharks call Southern California home while they’re maturing.  The introduction of longlines to our coast would almost certainly seal the fate of this rare and prolific mako nursery.

            If such gear was employed here, we would undoubtedly see the disappearance of what’s left of the local blue shark population, and the loss of the thresher shark fishery would be a very real possibility as well. On top of the bycatch destruction, yellowfin and bluefin tuna stocks will be the prime targets of the longliners. 

Why are we just now facing a West Coast threat? 

For the most part, commercial longlining has not been an issue off our West Coast, but things have changed. Drift longlining is currently not allowed in California inside of 200 miles from shore, and is limited in its use in Oregon and Washington. The problem we face now is the fact that the longline vessels and crews who are seeking permission to fish our coast are refugees from their own greed and plunder of the Atlantic. These operations have basically fished themselves out of business and are now looking for greener pastures – ours.

            Presently, there is no federal management plan in effect for the waters inside the 200-mile limit of the U. S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off the coast of Washington, Oregon and California. Up until now, these three western states have shared management of these waters through regional and local regulations with limited assistance from the federal government. 

            The Pacific Fishery Management Council (Pacific Council) is one of 8 national fishery management councils designed to manage different geographical regions in the country. The Pacific Council is in charge of federal issues in our area and has been involved in the past with setting up management plans for salmon, groundfish, and some coastal pelagic species.  With the advent of a large commercial longline group petitioning for entry into the EEZ, the Pacific Council is now commissioned with the task of setting up a Fishery Management Plan for the Highly Migratory Species Fisheries Off the West Coast. This plan is now referred to as the HMS FMP. 

            The purpose of the plan will be to manage the highly migratory species of fish found within the 200-mile boundary of the EEZ. Included on the HMS list are North Pacific albacore, yellowfin tuna, bigeye tuna, skipjack tuna, northern bluefin tuna, swordfish, common thresher shark, pelagic thresher shark, bigeye thresher shark, shortfin mako shark, blue shark and striped marlin.  

            As part of the research effort to develop a workable plan, the Pacific Council is required by federal law to solicit input from all parties who use the resource. This includes recreational fishermen as well as commercial fishermen. Herein lies the problem. The commercial interests have already submitted a written plan to the council. As valuable as research and knowledge are proclaimed to be to our legislators, coupled with what we know about the nature of the business of commercial longlining, its absolutely unthinkable that anyone would want to allow a repeat of what our East Coast counterparts have already suffered. Yet, the obliteration of an entire offshore fishery is a lesson that obviously not everyone has learned – the Pacific Council is actually taking the commercial bid under advisement.

What do the longliners want?           

In their usual, highly organized and well-represented manner, the commercials have drafted a plan that spells out their desires for their use of our coastline. On July 14, 2000, a representative of a large number of commercial longline swordfish and tuna fishermen, Chuck Janisse, submitted a document to the Pacific Council entitled Proposal To Regulate The West Coast Pelagic Longline Fishery Under The PFMCS HMS FMP. Among many points within the proposal are some very disturbing requests. Janisse states in his document that some of his clients objectives are:

            • To prohibit deployment of longline gear within 25 miles of the coastline…

            • To Control West Coast Longline effort by allowing the transfer of existing driftnet effort to the West Coast longline fishery…

            • To Answer questions about the nature and extent of a bluefin tuna resource inside the West Coast EEZ.

            Note the language used. Just the title alone of this document as a Proposal to Regulate, implies that it’s actually restrictive in nature and not a bid to open up our waters to total exploitation. Janisse also uses the phrase “to prohibit deployment of longline gear within 25 miles of the coastline.”  Since there is no longline gear within 25 miles of our coastline now, shouldn’t this document read, “To allow longline gear to fish 175 miles inside the EEZ?” Janisse is also trying to convince people that a baited longline hook is cleaner than a driftnet with his bid to allow driftnet permits to be transferred to longline permits. 

            Much of this push to allow longlines into West Coast waters has been disguised as a very much-needed experiment to determine whether or not we have a viable bluefin tuna fishery off our coast. The only argument Janisse can muster as to why this should happen is the citing of an unusual event

that took place between October 31, 1988 through January 3, 1989.

            During this time period, the local purse sein fleet captured close to 1000 very large bluefin tuna near the Tanner Bank. Some of these fish actually tipped the scales at over 1000 pounds each.  Mr. Janisse has attempted to capitalize on this never since repeated event by stating that “Longline caught swordfish and tunas are the most sought after because the fish are handled singly, landed alive and bled and chilled quickly. This results in a product of best quality and represents the highest use of the HMS resource.”

            He then adds that large bluefin tuna are the most sought after tuna for international and domestic sushi markets, somehow, subjecting our waters to the negative impact of a longline fleet so a few individuals can sell sushi at prices that most of us can’t afford, doesn’t seem to be the highest use of the HMS resource. 

            The prime target area for bluefin tuna in Southern California would be what is known as the Southern California Bight. This area is identified as the inshore waters from Point Conception to the Mexican border with San Miguel Island, San Nicolas Island and San Clemente Island forming the offshore boundary line.  If the determination of whether or not we have a viable bluefin tuna fishery here in this zone   can only be accomplished by compiling data from an experimental longline fishery, then it would be wise for the Council to study the results of experiments already conducted.

            One experiment that was conducted in 1968 by the commercial longliners appears in Janisse’s own report to the Pacific Council. He writes, “in an area between San Clemente Island and Santa Barbara Island, 5 night longline sets made between September 23-28 of 270 hooks each using mackerel and squid for bait yielded a total of 2 swordfish, 2 mako sharks and 500 blue sharks.”  Since blue sharks aren’t marketable, this experiment produced a bycatch ratio of 250 to 1. If you consider that the 2 mako sharks were most likely juveniles, the ratio becomes even uglier. It is curious that  Janisse never mentioned how many bluefin tuna were captured.

            It’s quite possible that the bluefin tuna longline experiment just mentioned yielded the same results as another recent experiment conducted in the waters of Northern Baja California by the Mexican government not far from our common border.

            In a letter dated March 2001, to the Pacific Council, the founder of Sea Watch, Mike McGettigan, cited the results of that experiment. McGettigan wrote, “Mexico tried an experimental bluefin tuna longline fishery with two Japanese boats from September 1997  May 1998. An effort of 471,952 hooks, caught 11,743 striped marlin (77.5%), 758 sailfish and swordfish (5%) and 2,652 other fish (17.5%).”  

McGettigan then pointed out that this experiment was conducted in Northern Mexican waters which is basically the same area the U.S. longliners want to target. In this experiment, nearly 95% of what was captured was bycatch, and not a single bluefin tuna appeared in the count. Instead, the experiment only succeeded in further damaging our already declining billfish and shark stocks.

            Further into his document, Janisse attempted to demonstrate how setting an impenetrable barrier of 40-mile long longlines within the range of nearly every private boater on the coast won’t interfere with recreational fishermen. To validate his claim, he cites some ancient marlin catch records from the Marlin Club of San Diego and the Balboa Angling Club dated between 1963 and 1969.

            His clever map with the restricted area stretched offshore to San Clemente Island is a smoke screen to show that the private sector won’t be effected by his clients. But this is 2001, not 1963.  Even in 1963, private yachts were able to make frequent runs to all of the islands, but today, if a boat won’t take a party to the 43 Spot, or the Butterfly or 60-Mile Bank, it won’t get any tuna.

             These are the areas where the tuna and swordfish are and therefore these are the areas where the longliners will set their lines – there is no doubt about this. If the longline fleet is allowed to set up where they’re proposing, there will be problems between the commercial and private sectors.  Catching a single fish on hook and line sport gear will be virtually impossible with 2,000 miles of longline gear in the water.

What can we do?

To combat this, we must stand up and be counted. The Pacific Council is asking for our input. During this data collection process, the law requires that a copy of every letter written to the council is copied and distributed to each council member.  This is a window of opportunity that cannot be squandered.

            All that is required is to write a letter to the council and state your position. The simple statement that you strongly oppose the introduction of pelagic longlines within the EEZ on our coast is enough. To fortify your position, make it clear that you are aware of the careless destruction and waste associated with the use of longline gear in the past and you are not willing to stand by and let it happen here. You’re not only a recreational fisherman who cares, but you pay taxes and you vote. 

            The bottom line is that longlining is devastating to our resources. The Pacific Council is scheduled to review all data in June 2001. Do not hesitate to take action. 

Address your letter to:           

            Chairman Jim Lone

            Pacific Fishery Management Council

            2130 SW Fifth Avenue

            Portland, Oregon  97201





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