Site by N.E. Stolpe

Number 14
September 11, 2000

Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page
Tunas and marlin and swordfish, oh my….
Over the last several months a battle has been waged over who has the right to the tunas and billfish (swordfish, marlin and sailfish) found in the waters off the coasts of the U.S. These fish are generally found far offshore, well beyond the range of most recreational fishermen, and are the usual quarry of large sportfishing yachts on the recreational side and commercial longlining fishing vessels like the ill-fated Andrea Gail pictured in The Perfect Storm. Some - as discussed below, definitely not all - of the sportfishing organizations have determined that they don’t want to share these offshore waters, or the fish in them, with the longliners or with the consumers that buy their products.  Deciding that for some reason they deserve the exclusive rights to fish there, they have initiated a political and public relations campaign to ban longlining in what they evidently have come to consider their ocean. They’ve enlisted New Jersey Congressman Jim Saxton, Chairman of the House Fisheries Subcommittee, as their “champion” in Washington and the issue is well on the way to polarizing the voters in the district he represents.

The Fish:

These species cover thousands of miles of ocean in their annual migrations. Because of this they are referred to collectively as highly migratory species (HMS). Their migrations take them through waters which lie within the management jurisdictions of many countries as well as the international waters beyond; accordingly they are managed by international bodies (in the case of  the HMS in the Atlantic, the management body is the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas or ICCAT) rather than the fisheries agencies of individual countries.

Highly migratory species are prized both as table fare and as sportsmen’s trophies. On the commercial side, consumers the world over have an enduring appreciation for fresh tuna, marlin and swordfish, and in the U.S., where swordfish and tuna have long been consumer favorites, we’re beginning to catch up to the rest of the world in recognizing the culinary appeal of fresh and smoked marlin (though U.S. regulations prohibit the sale of marlin from Atlantic waters). While the harvest from the HMS fisheries, in terms of pounds landed, isn’t that great, the high value per pound of the fish produced and their popularity with consumers makes them extremely important to the fishing ports where the commercial HMS vessels dock. Recreationally, the goal of many anglers is to successfully battle one of these offshore “big game” species to the boat, and those anglers collectively spend millions of dollars each year to catch them. Adding to the mystique of the recreational HMS fishery, each year in dozens of billfish and tuna tournaments up and down the coast anglers in million dollar yachts will compete for cash prizes that can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars for bringing in the largest fish (it was just reported in the Asbury Park Press that a sailfish caught in an Ocean City, MD tournament was worth over half a million dollars to the angler and crew that killed it). These species are beyond the reach, both physically and economically, of the vast majority of the recreational anglers and catching them since the early part of the last century has been considered a “rich man’s” hobby.

The Fishing Techniques:
A small fleet of commercial fishing vessels called longliners catch the bulk of the commercially harvested swordfish and tunas off the East coast. These boats fish with long lengths of monofilament line from which are suspended shorter vertical lines terminating in single baited hooks. The longlines can range up to 20 to 40 miles in length with hooks spaced every 250 to 350 feet apart (for a mostly accurate though somewhat dramatic view of how  longline gear is fished we refer you to the movie The Perfect Storm). There are under 200 vessels in the East and Gulf coast HMS longline fleets.

[For a discussion of the longline fisheryLink to longlining section]

The size of the offshore recreational fishing fleet is unknown.  In identifying the recreational HMS fleet - or any other recreational fishing fleet, for that matter - all we can do is estimate. Any U.S. boat targeting Atlantic tunas requires an Atlantic Tunas Permit issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Considering that there’s a significant charge for the permit and that the application process is reasonably arduous, it’s safe to assume that virtually all of the recreational fishing boats that possess one of these permits fishing out of East coast ports will target HMS. In 1998 over 12,000 Atlantic tuna permits were issued to Angling and Charter/Headboat category vessels.

These boats employ one of two fishing techniques; chumming - also called chunking - or trolling. In chumming, crew members on a drifting or anchored boat spread chopped up bits of fish over the side, establishing an oily slick that can extend for miles and will attract any fish that happen upon it and lead them to the baited hooks. In trolling, the much more widely used methods, the boat drags from four to a dozen (or more) artificial lures or natural baits through likely bits of ocean at speeds of up to 10 miles an hour.

The Fishing Effort:
The anti-commercial fishing argument in the HMS debates, of course, is that the longliners are using up all the available water with their gear and catching all of the fish, leaving few for the sportsmen who are willing and able to spend a thousand dollars a day trying to catch the same fish (though it’s important to note that not all of the HMS recreational fishermen are engaged in these debates; several large and influential recreational fishing organizations are working with the longliners to solve the real problems in the fishery). Quoting from a recent advertisement by a fishing club called the Recreational Fishing Alliance “There are 60 million sportfishermen in America and approximately (sic) 458 licensed drift longline boats. Yet the longliners kill more fish without regard to size or species than all the sportfishermen combined.” The implication is - but, of course, by using some fairly clumsy verbal “sleight of hand” the writer is careful to not commit to such a glaring misstatement - that these few longliners catch more fish than all of America’s (we think the writer meant the United States’) recreational anglers.
“ fact, a recent survey we conducted indicates that 41 percent of our readers are fishing more often than they did two years ago, with nearly half of these folks Saying “a lot more.” So. we can expect plenty of company on the water in the coming weeks. Let’s face it, the most productive spots, be they out over the canyons (where most recreational angling for HMS takes place) or in the quiet backwaters, get more crowded ever year.” (from an editorial in the September, 00 issue of Saltwater Sportsman, a leading recreational fishing magazine )

A typical offshore sportfishing yacht

According to the NMFS Large Pelagics Survey, in 1997 a total of 150,000 recreational trips were taken for HMS from Virginia to Maine. While the type of fishing practised on each trip wasn’t specified, we’re going to assume that two-thirds of them were devoted to trolling. At an average speed of 8 miles per hour and assuming 6 hours of fishing per trip, about 5 million miles of ocean were covered by recreational fishing boats trolling for HMS in a single year off the Mid-Atlantic and New England. Considering the popularity of recreational fishing in the southern states, and the more favorable weather allowing much more time on the water, we’ll assume about double this effort from North Carolina to Florida. Possibly 15 million miles of water are being trolled for HMS by recreational boats annually. And over every mile each of these boats drags up to a dozen baits or lures - and various other fish-attracting devices - behind them(for a description of how a sportfishing yacht "rigs" for offshore tuna fishing - with up to 28 lures behind it - see John Geiser's Asbury Park Press column on August 28 Link to Asbury Park Press how to column).

Because of recent advances in fish-finding and positioning technology much has been made of the increased efficiency of the modern commercial fishing fleet . Today that same technology is available to, and has been widely adopted by, the recreational fishing fleet as well. But there is one extremely  significant difference in how the technology is applied. Having displacement hulls, commercial fishing boats are limited to speeds of  about 10 mph. Recreational fishing boats, on the other hand, are generally built on planing hulls and their speed is only limited by the size of the engines that can be crammed into them. The large offshore yachts that go after HMS are capable of speeds of 30 to 40 miles an hour, allowing them to cover much larger areas in much shorter times and to reach reported or suspected concentrations of fish in hours rather than days.

As we’ve reported before, the East coast pelagic longline fleet numbers less than 200 vessels. Each fishes between 20 and 40 miles of longline gear for an average of 100 days a year (note: these statistics were supplied by Blue Water Fishermen’s Association). That’s 20,000 days that are fished each year by the longline fleet and, assuming an average longline length of 30 miles, about 600,000 miles of water are covered.

When comparing longlining to recreational fishing, the anti-commercial fishing groups try to equate the level of fishing effort  to a simple matter of the number of hooks being fished. This seems a particularly inept - if not purposely misleading - comparison. Once longline gear is set, it remains at the same place in the water column, drifting with the current but stationary relative to the surrounding water. Hence the hooks on a 30 mile long longline, no matter how many hooks there are, are “exposed” to target fish in only that immediate area. The eight or ten or twelve hooks in the bait or lures being dragged behind a sportfishing yacht trolling at eight miles an hour, on the other hand, are exposed to as much water and presumably to as many fish, in only half a day of fishing. The anti-longlining argument that 600 hooks on a longline have 50 times the catching capacity of 12 hooks dragged by a sportfishing yacht over the same 30 miles of ocean strains the credulity, if not the rationality, of any objective observer. In spite of the fact that the big game sportfishing fleet collectively fishes what appears to be at least an order of magnitude more water than the longliners, that’s their primary argument.

Admittedly, we’ve taken liberties in estimating the offshore recreational fishing effort. Even if we are overestimating by a factor of two, it still appears pretty difficult to deny that the recreational HMS fleet covers a much larger part of the ocean than the longline fleet does in a year of fishing. But what about the relative catching capacities of the two fisheries?

For an idea of  how effective recreational fishing for billfish can be, we found a website (The Billfish Americas Tour, url in which a rotating crew on a 47 foot yacht fishing off Mexico and Central America in 1999 and 2000 caught up to 22 marlin and up to 33 sailfish a day (not the same day), we assume by trolling. Surpassing even that catch level, an article in the September, 2000 issue of Marlin magazine reports a recreational boat fishing in Mexican waters taking 86 sailfish in a single day. We’ve seen reports of anglers on recreational boats in the winter bluefin tuna fishery off  Cape Hatteras catching and releasing upwards of 40 tuna a day, and successful yellowfin tuna charters out of New Jersey ports can easily land two dozen fish in a day.

It seems that when these sportfishing yachts catch 5 or 10 HMS in a day, it doesn’t raise very many eyebrows. Going by that, and even assuming the seemingly low 15% HMS catch and release mortality rate reported in the Marlin magazine article cited above (no one knows what it actually is, and it seems like nobody’s particularly interested in finding out), the recreational mortality must be staggering.

“Sportfishermen” selling their catch

A spin-off of the anti-longlining campaign is an increased scrutiny of the degree to which HMS sportfishermen sell their catch - primarily yellowfin tuna. There are  federal regulations prohibiting it. According to NMFS “… sale and purchase of Atlantic tunas is illegal unless the individual is in possession of the proper permits. Atlantic tunas Angling category permit holders are not authorized to sell their landings, and only permitted Atlantic tunas dealers are authorized to purchase tunas from vessels. Illegal sales and purchase of tunas caught by non-commercially permitted vessels may be penalized by substantial fines. In addition, consumption of illegally sold and purchased tuna could present a health threat to your community, as the fish may not be properly processed….” In spite of this, it’s being reported that it’s a fairly common practice for sportfishermen to sell part or all of their catch of tuna to “help offset the cost of the trip.” With the ex-vessel price of yellowfin tuna starting at $3 a pound,  and with recreational trips resulting in 500 pounds of dead tuna not uncommon, this is hardly surprising, and certainly brings into question the actual motives of  some of the people who want to close down the longline fishery.

Conversely, the longline fishery is closely monitored. Government observers sail aboard randomly selected longline trips, and all of the fish are reported to NMFS when they are landed. The swordfish fishery is shut down when (if) its annual quota is being approached.
The Catch:
It’s difficult to compare actual catch figures, but we thought it would be an interesting exercise to try to ferret out who’s really catching all the fish.

Of the HMS species, swordfish have become an almost exclusive commercial quarry and the other billfish are reserved for the recreational fleet so we can’t use them. Bluefin tuna are so highly regulated, and fishing for them by all sectors is so restricted, that no valid comparisons can be drawn from that fishery either. Yellowfin tuna, however, can give us a reasonable picture of who’s catching what in our offshore waters. As we mentioned above, because of their culinary desirability they are sought after both recreationally and commercially, and the fishery had been unregulated until very recently. As the chart to the right shows, the recreational yellowfin tuna catch has remained at least 5 times the commercial catch for most of the last two decades.

Comp of yellowfin tuna catch

From NMFS statistics web pageLink to NMFS' statistics section

Another species that is found in the same offshore waters as the HMS is the dolphin fish, also known as mahi mahi. Another popular species with both recreational anglers and seafood consumers, it has also been targeted by some of the sportfishermen as a potential “gamefish” (this means commercial harvest and sale would be banned). The gap between the recreational and commercial harvest of mahi mahi is even greater than it is with yellowfin tuna. And the boats that pursue these fish, and the fishing capacity they represent, are the same boats that catch HMS.
Comp of mahi catch

From NMFS statistics web pageLink to NMFS' statistics section

The Big Lie:

(or perhaps just a very large misunderstanding?) There are thousands of sportfishing boats out there pursuing marlin and sailfish and tuna. As a fleet they have the ability to cover areas of the ocean and outfish the commercial longliners by a factor of at least ten to one. As demonstrated by the landings of dolphin and yellowfin tuna, when the playing field is level and the hyperbole is filtered out, that’s about what they do. It’s glaringly obvious where the threat to the HMS in U.S. waters is coming from (and, according to Saltwater Sportsman, that threat is increasing dramatically from year to year). But with millions and millions of dollars at stake - in sportfishing yacht sales, in marlin and tuna tournament prizes, and reportedly in the “black market” sale of tens of thousands of pounds of recreationally caught and illegally sold tuna - it would certainly be in the sportfishing industry’s best interests to eliminate the competition for these fish. And, longline fisherman and consumer be damned, it appears as if that’s what they are trying to do.
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