GULF OF MEXICO - Lest anyone still suffer under the delusion that the proposed temporary closures in the Gulf of Mexico (as first proposed in S. 1911 known as the "Breaux Bill" and adopted in follow-on bills) will have any conservation benefit for billfish or juvenile swordfish, please consider the following 4 maps (links highlighted in red just below).   They were produced by NMFS' scientists based on the catch and bycatch (of billfish) reported by U.S. Atlantic longliners.  On each is outlined the boundaries of the longline closures as proposed in H.R. 4773.  Three of the maps show plots of the locations of the highest concentrations of blue marlin, white marlin and sailfish during July through September.  (We have 10 years of such quarterly catch maps.)   Also available is a map showing the location and annual distribution of U.S. longline effort (in number of hooks fished). 
Map Showing Areas
Longliners Fish
White Marlin Map
Blue Marlin Map
Sailfish Map
As you will see, the Gulf of Mexico closure area (the inshore portion of the western Gulf of Mexico) has been carefully drawn by the authors of the "Breaux Bill" to skirt and exclude the primary areas fished by longliners.  This is shown clearly in the longline effort map (above). The reason is that the closure excludes the areas where their primary target species (swordfish and tuna) concentrate, and, as shown in the three species maps (above), where billfish (and juvenile swordfish, as noted below) concentrate to feed. 
Consequently, the
Gulf Closure has no conservation benefit.  Nor would it, even if were closed year-round.
SOUTH ATLANTIC CLOSURE - The closure along the east coast of south Florida is obviously needed to protect billfish, which concentrate there year-round.  However, the maps also show that the Charleston Bump area closure proposed in the Breaux Bill (and modified slightly in its amended version) also excludes much of most productive deeper waters fished by longliners. This is a prime feeding area for blue marlin, white marlin, sailfish and swordfish (particularly juvenile swordfish during the late summer and early fall). Thus, a high rate of bykill of billfish, juvenile swordfish and other species will continue in the unprotected portion of this "hot spot."
MID-ATLANTIC CLOSURE - Only the Saxton Bill (H.R. 4773) provides some protection to white marlin (and blue marlin) that concentrate each year from June through October along the steep edge of the Continental Shelf lying between Cape Hatteras and the eastern tip of Georges Bank. The white marlin map clearly portrays this important "hot spot" between the 100 and 1,000 fathom lines.  But, half of this "hot spot" extends to the east of and thus outside this proposed Mid-Atlantic closure area, an omission that should be corrected.
For all the large pelagics of the Atlantic, their most important feeding area in U.S. waters is the steep edge of the Continental Shelf, roughly between the 100 and 1,000 fathom depth contours, extending from our border with Mexico to the eastern tip of Georges Bank. The many canyons intersecting this edge are particularly rich in prey and the large pelagic predators.  It is the presence of the Loop Current, and its extension to become the Florida Current and finally the Gulf Stream, that makes this narrow band of ocean so valuable.  Click HERE to see a map showing the major surface currents of the North Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.  The edges of these currents and their huge eddies, especially when they flow against a steep continental slope, are prime feeding areas for all the large pelagic species.  These areas (and their spawning areas) are also their last refuges.
The locations of the primary swordfish nursery areas are portrayed in maps developed by Dr. Jean Cramer of NMFS, which are reproduced HERE. They extend year-round along the edge of the Continental Shelf from Apalachicola to Tampa and along the east coast of Florida through the Florida Straits. Also depicted are the swordfish's spawning, feeding and nursery areas and their major migratory routes, as taken from Dr. Fred Arocha's dissertation on the life history and reproductive strategy of north Atlantic swordfish.
If one wanted to minimize the bycatch of billfish and juvenile swordfish (the stated objective of all the various longline closure bills under consideration), one would prohibit the use of longlines between the 100 and 1,000 fathom lines for all those areas where these species concentrate at predictable periods throughout the year.  Such "hot spots" are readily identified from Dr. Mace's maps, which cover 10 years of U.S. longline landings by quarter for each of the three billfish species (blue marlin, white marlin and sailfish). Two recent years of them ('94 and '95) are reproduced in color on our website.  To see them, click HERE for Blue Marlin,  HERE for White Marlin and  HERE for Sailfish.
The most recent SCRS stock assessment (conducted for ICCAT this summer) indicates that since the last stock assessment (1996), Atlantic white marlin biomass (at the end of 1999) had declined from 23 to only 13 percent of its MSY level, and that fishing mortality has increased from 3 to 8 times the sustainable level.  (Responsible fishery managers should never allow a population to fall and remain below the MSY biomass level or for fishing pressure to exceed the MSY mortality rate.)  This Atlantic-wide population of white marlin is less than 5 years from "functional" extinction! It may already be too late to save white marlin. Atlantic blue marlin are headed toward extinction within about 10 years.  We are guardedly optimistic, but we have no information on the population status of sailfish since its last stock assessment was conducted about a decade ago.
Since the commercial fleets are targeting other species whose populations are much more numerous, the incidental kill of marlin will continue until it becomes unprofitable to target swordfish and the larger tunas.  Swordfish and particularly yellowfin tuna populations can withstand a great deal more commercial fishing pressure before they are no longer economically viable.  (Yellowfin biomass is thought to be at about the MSY level and swordfish biomass is 65 percent of its MSY level.)  Unfortunately, neither blue nor white marlin will be able to survive this continued pressure.  They are already too close to the brink of extinction.  For details on the population status of all the Atlantic's large pelagics, click HERE, which also has links to each species.
The big game fishery for Atlantic blue marlin, white marlin, sailfish, bluefin tuna, bigeye tuna, yellowfin tuna, sharks and the other large pelagics contributes vastly more to the U.S. economy than do the commercial longline, purse seine and gillnet fisheries, which are being allowed to destroy these stocks.  Moreover, there are thousands more recreational participants than commercial participants in these fisheries.
Now is the time to take decisive action, both nationally and internationally.  In our own waters, we should close all the identified "hot spots" to non-selective gear, such as longlines and drift gillnets, during those periods of the year when billfish and juvenile swordfish (and other dangerously depleted species, such as bluefin tuna and bigeye tuna) are concentrated in such areas.
The U.S. delegates to ICCAT ought to also be arguing for similar bold action, internationally.  Every live billfish should be released by the international longline fleets in a manner that promotes their survival, and their identified spawning areas should be closed to all commercial gear.   Failure by the U.S. to promote either course of action is unacceptable, and those responsible should be replaced by professionals who will work hard for the resource.

Chambers and Associates
9814 Kensington Parkway
Kensington, Maryland 20895-3425

(T) (301) 949-7778   (F) (301) 949-3003


Severity of Atlantic HMS Population Declines



Live Moon Phase Display

Daily "Kill-o-Meter"

Longliners fish most heavily during the periods when the moon is brightest. So, this real-time image of the moon phase shows when the kill of swordfish is greatest and least. It also shows when the kill of blue marlin, white marlin, sailfish, sharks, tunas, sea turtles, marine mammals and a host of other marine life is also greatest - even though they are not even targeted. For more, see link above.

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