Alarmed at the growing prospect of "longline creep," conservationists are calling on the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to deny a request to extend and expand Exempted Fishing Permits issued in 2008 that cracked open the door for the commercial longline industry to fish in conservation zones created in the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. Citing a host of concerns in a letter to NMFS, Coastal Conservation Association is demanding that the original permits be allowed to expire on Feb. 28, 2009.
In its final comments, CCA requested that all data on the longline fishery gathered in 2008 be released to the public; NMFS conduct all necessary environmental reviews and analyses under the National Environmental Policy Act; the comment period on this matter be extended so that the public can take into account the data already developed, and no permits be re-issued or extended until the public has had a chance to review the information requested.
"From the very beginning this has been a thinly veiled excuse to re-introduce longlining, under the guise of a bycatch study, back into areas that were justifiably closed to such gear," said Chester Brewer, vice chairman of the CCA National Government Relations Committee. "NMFS allowed longliners back into those zones, and the agency's own reports indicate that there has been substantial bycatch and mortality of undersized swordfish, other fish species and threatened and endangered sea turtles from those industrial fishing operations. There is no valid reason to allow this charade to go on any longer."
The conservation zones were originally implemented to eliminate bycatch and mortality of sailfish, marlins and undersized swordfish. Over the objections of CCA and other conservation groups, NMFS allowed longliners back into the zones in 2008 to test gear modifications and fishing techniques that were supposed to avoid incidental capture of non-target species. With the permits set to expire, the longline industry is requesting not only that the "study" be allowed to continue, but that the area open to the commercial gear be expanded 10 nautical miles further west toward the east coast of Florida.
"NMFS has yet to fulfill its own obligation to monitor the impact of the industrial fishing they allowed last year. How can they consider extending and expanding the exempted fishing permits when they haven't even reviewed and analyzed the data from 2008?" asked Fred Miller, chairman of the CCA National Government Relations Committee. "Those permits need to expire once and for all. Any gear modification can be studied in the areas where longliners currently set their gear. To say they need to continue to try them in protected areas simply strains their credibility even further."