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No bottom longlines, unless you want sharks.

The devil is in the details, when you're dealing with changes in federal fishery management.

Shark longliners, who use basically the same type of gear grouper longliners use, are currently exempt from an emergency measure which until November 2009 prohibits "all reef fish longline fishing" in Gulf of Mexico waters shallower than 300 feet.

A nasty devil, on at least two counts.

For one, data from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Highly Migratory Species Division indicates that shark longlines kill almost as many loggerhead sea turtles as grouper longlines.

That fact casts a grim light on the emergency no-longlines measure, which was passed after the stunning revelation that 335 loggerheads drowned on Gulf grouper longlines in 2006 and 2007.

The bulk of the turtle kill occurred in waters along the West Florida shelf which have long been exempt from a Gulf-wide restriction on longlining in shallow water. Here, longliners pursue not only red grouper, but blacktip, sandbar and other large coastal sharks. The rigs they use consist of several miles of line anchored to the bottom overnight, containing 600 or more baited hooks.

One would expect that a turtle would have a difficult time discerning a grouper longline from a shark longline, and that would be correct (for that matter, sharks are routinely caught on grouper longlines).

From extrapolated observer data, NMFS estimated 784.3 loggerhead "interactions" with shark bottom longlines between 2004 and 2006. An earlier study found that of 64 loggerheads landed, 17 died and 14 were released in "unknown condition."

By our math, that suggests that shark bottom longlines result in somewhere between 100 and 200 loggerhead mortalities per year.

The grouper longline closure, approved by NMFS in late May 2009, was formulated by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. The Gulf Council, however, doesn't offer advice on shark management (nor tunas, nor billfish). That's HMS.

I asked Karyl Brewster-Geisz of HMS about the grouper-shark-loggerhead disconnect.

"HMS Management Division was aware of what was happening with the emergency area restrictions and had a number of staff-to-staff conversations within NMFS. We expect that additional and probably more formal consultations will occur if the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council moves toward implementing nonemergency restrictions."

The Gulf Council, for its part, is currently assimilating public opinion and scientific data en route to formal measures to address the longline turtle bykill.

Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC) is one of three groups whose legal posturing forced NMFS' hand on the grouper longline restriction. When asked about shark longlines, CCC spokeswoman Marydele Donnelly said, "NMFS has told the conservation community that the shark fishery is much reduced. However, we need to take a hard look at the most recent observer data."

Well, the data's there, and even though the shark fleet is in its twilight, the data doesn't look good.

Perhaps even more insidious than the overlooked turtle mortality within the shark fishery is the gaping loophole it represents. The NMFS bureaucracy seems to have maintained a conduit for commercial reef fish capture on nonselective gear.

Turtles and fish can't tell which is grouper and which is shark gear. Will thinly stretched law enforcement officers be able to do so?

Better for NMFS to restrict all bottom longlining. Make grouper a tended vertical-rig only fishery. Fishermen ought to pay attention to what's going on down there, even if regulators apparently aren't.

--Jeff Weakley, Editor
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Title Annotation:On the Conservation Front: News and commentary from the environmental battlegrounds
Author:Weakley, Jeff
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2009
Words:563
Previous Article:Fish and submarines.
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