From Florida Sportsman, February 2000
"On the Conservation Front"
"Fed Up Commercial Longliner Reveals Nightmarish Killing on the High Seas"
"… In the midst of these quarrels among brothers [recreational fishing organizations on the proposed longline legislation known as the Breaux Bill] came a most unusual call to Florida Sportsman. It was an I-can't-stand-it-anymore longliner. He's quitting the business and was willing to talk with Editor Jeff Weakley on tape about the commercial fisher's feelings of disgust. We'll simply call him Longliner in these excerpts adapted from two interviews. Ironically, the crewman's revelations are an extension of another former longliner's "confessions" published by Florida Sportsman. We called for emergency action then. That was 12 years ago. Karl Wickstrom
FS: How long did you work as a longliner out of Ft. Pierce?
LONGLINER: About ten years.
FS: What kind of boat did you work on?
LONGLINER: They were fiberglass, one was a 60-footer, one was a 45-footer. But there were three or four boats I worked.
FS: What did you fish for?
LONGLINER: Swordfish was our money fish, and tuna was our money fish. That was our main high dollar fish that we would catch. And also dolphin—mahi mahi—we caught a lot of that. And when shark was in season, we could bring that in, too. But we caught everything from marlin, sailfish, turtles, whales, big monster squid. You name it, we caught it.
FS: Were there certain times of year or places where you'd catch more marlin?
LONGLINER: Pretty much anywhere we'd fish. We were always catching marlin and sailfish. It seemed like we caught more of 'em when we were fishing in the Straits. There would be days when we would catch, God, twenty, thirty sailfish; and you know, there would be a marlin in there, too. But then if we would go offshore to fish for tunas, we'd catch a few out there, but they were usually big, humongous marlin.
FS: What happened to the marlin?
LONGLINER: Well, once we got it up close to the boat and we could see what it was, if we knew it was a marlin, we could cut it off and let it swim away. You know, they put up a pretty good fight. But most of the time they would come up dead. That was one of the things that really got to me—all the dead fish that we would pull up.
FS: You would be out for a whole week?
LONGLINER: Yeah, sometimes longer.
FS: What time of day did you set your lines?
LONGLINER: You start right before dark.
FS: Why that time? Is that when swordfish bite better?
LONGLINER: Yeah, that's just when they bite, that and it had to do with sharks— you didn't want your line to be in the water early, because sharks can see it.
FS: What time of day would you pull in your lines?
LONGLINER: We start at six thirty or seven; try to get done around one in the afternoon.
FS: What kind of rigging?
LONGLINER: Mono. The main line was anywhere from 700- to 900-pound test, and our leaders were 400-pound test. And then the buoy drops, they would be like 200-pound test. And then we would have snaps; our snaps, we would have them at the end of the leader, and snap them on the main line. We were using like 9/0 hooks.
FS: Circle hooks or J hooks?
LONGLINER: J hooks, no circle hooks.
FS: How many hooks would be on a line?
LONGLINER: Four to five hundred.
FS: How long did the line stretch?
LONGLINER: The 60-foot boat I worked on—I worked on that for like three years—we were fishing forty miles. But then the smaller boats I worked on, they were 20 miles, 25 miles.
FS: What would be a good week's catch?
LONGLINER: We mostly go by pounds. If we caught 3,000 pounds of swordfish, that was a pretty good catch. That's pretty much paycheck. Price of fish had a lot to do with it. But there was a lot of bycatch—a lot of undersize swordfish that we would catch. And it would really get to you some days. You would look behind the boat and there would be just a trail of dead fish floating. And there was nothing you could do with them because you can't bring 'em in, legally, 33 pounds or under. And they were just all dead; over 90 percent are dead when they come up. If they are alive, you know, you cut the leader. If they were alive, we sure tried to make sure they swam away. You didn't want to kill them. It just, it really, I mean it got so a lot of us. I wasn't the only one. A lot of guys felt the same way.
FS: Did you enter that stuff in a log book?
LONGLINER: Well, not…. Some of it, you know…
FS: Like you record the number of swordfish, would you make a mark if you caught a marlin or a dolphin?
LONGLINER: Yeah, well, most of the guys I worked with didn't. The owner of one boat told me, "Don't write down nothing. It just adds fuel to the fire." I used to work with a guy who insisted on bringing marlin and sailfish in and cutting their throats; we'd send 'em away bleeding so they wouldn't mess with our gear. Hundreds of 'em. It happens all the time. I've done it, and I feel bad about it. That was back when I first started. I was kind of green. Anything that would mess with the gear, they had to kill it.
FS: What's the most marlin you caught in a day?
LONGLINER: Oh God, once you get in 'em, you're in 'em. I ain't really sure how many, maybe a dozen. Mostly sailfish— once you get in sailfish, you're in 'em.
FS: How far offshore were you catching the sailfish?
LONGLINER: Oh, that would be in the Straits. We catch 'em all in the Straits, from the Keys all the way to Canaveral. But it would seem like if we were offshore, that we were catching bigger marlin, big monster marlin.
ES: You mentioned you'd catch a turtle or a whale. How many of those would you catch in a month?
LONGLINER: When the turtles are really active or something, then about every day, in summertime. In winter, not as much, but you'd still catch a half a dozen a month.
FS: What would you do with a turtle?
LONGLINER: Cut it loose and let it swim away. None of those were dead.
FS: And the whales?
LONGLINER: They would always be alive. We used to hate catching them; they'd fight the whole way, trying to get away.
FS: What kind of whales?
LONGLINER: Mostly pilot whales.
FS: So what about dolphin (mahi-mahi)?
LONGLINER: We used to really catch a whole bunch, but it isn't nowhere near what it used to be, weight wise. We used to bring in three, four thousand pounds a week in summer when they were running. We'd be up off South Carolina and North Carolina. But it just don't happen no more.
"... we'd send 'em away bleeding so they wouldn't mess up our gear. "
FS: If you're targeting just dolphin, how do you fish? Different than swordfish?
LONGLINER: We never really targeted them. We were swordfishing, and they were just part of the bycatch.
FS: So the dolphin would bite at night?
FS: And how deep were your lines?
LONGLINER: A hundred and fifty feet.
FS: Did you fish for yellowfin tuna?
LONGLINER: We caught lots of tunas. In wintertime, it seemed like the swordfish would slow down in the Straits. It's a choice—go catch swords, or go east and catch some tuna. Lots of guys, instead of fight the current, they'd go out and tuna fish.
FS: How far offshore?
LONGLINER: A hundred and fifty miles; you know where the conservation line is?
FS: The EEZ [exclusive economic zone]?
LONGLINER: At a place called the Corner, where it takes a sharp right-hand turn. Out in that area, 150 to 180 miles from the dock on the GPS.
FS: And the swordfish were closer?
FS: How far offshore in the Straits?
LONGLINER: We'd start in 100 fathoms, and run the line all way to the EEZ. If we had more line to set, we would swing around and do like a horseshoe; before you went over the line [EEZ], you'd turn north, go a little ways, and turn inshore.
FS: In ten years, what did you notice as far as trends in the fishing?
LONGLINER: I noticed how, when we first started, it wasn't nothing to catch four or five thousand pounds in seven days. Now you got to stay out longer; the fishing's just getting worse and worse. But the thing that really got to me was having to throw back all them dead fish, all them dead swordfish. There'd be days when 40 or 50 fish, all undersize, we'd throw back in the water.
FS: What's the smallest swordfish you've caught?
LONGLINER: We seen some babies. Small. Maybe five pounds at that.
FS: And what would be a big swordfish?
LONGLINER: Biggest I ever unloaded, guts out, weighed 453 pounds. It was a monster. We had to get in the water, cut off the head and gut it or the hydraulic boom wouldn't bring it in the boat.
FS: What would you get per pound for a fish like that?
LONGLINER: Four, five dollars a pound.
FS: Did you see fewer bigger fish in the last couple of years?
LONGLINER: Yeah, definitely.
FS: And were you getting less for your fish at the end of a trip?
LONGLINER: We'd still get money. In winter, we get better money for our fish, 'cause boats up north can't fish; it's so rough up there. In summer, price pretty much drops down to around three dollars a pound.
FS: So what made you get out of the fishery?
LONGLINER: I can't see swordfishing being around much longer. The government, they gotta step in and close it down before all the fish disappear, or they're gonna regulate it so bad to where you can't make no money at it. I just got tired of it.
FS: Were some of the other captains talking about getting out?
LONGLINER: Yeah, lots of them would like to. But it's a pretty good job. It's fun and exciting, if you like doing that kind of stuff. You make good money when the fish are biting.
FS: If you had recommendations for the government, what would you suggest?
LONGLINER: Tell them they need to close it down for a while, close down the Straits or something. I ain't kidding you. There were some days - and I mean this goes on every week - that we was out there we would be catching anywhere from, some days forty, fifty undersize fish. -Maybe five of them would swim away. That just don't make no sense.
FS: How many boats would be out on night?
LONGLINER: All the boats out of Ft. Pierce, and the ones out of Pompano there would be a line of boats, fifty miles apart. The only way to keep in touch was through radio. Sometime it was hard to find a place to fish be cause of all the boats out there. Ten or twenty sometimes.
FS: When you're bringing in fish, can you see what other guys are bringing in?
LONGLINER: If we get done early before another boat and we were close enough a couple of times we rode over to watch 'em bring in their line.
FS: What did you see? Marlin sometimes?
LONGLINER: Something really sticks in my head; it was bringing up all then undersize fish, just one after the other.
FS: All of them dead?
LONGLINER: Yeah. They don't stand a chance.