Live Fast, Die Young

Dolphin Anglers Beware, Florida’s Favored Game Fish May be in Peril

FSF Staff May 14, 2009

As I open my eyes for the first time, I’m nearly blinded by the golden hues of shimmering light protruding through the ever-present mats of floating vegetation. In my peripheral vision I notice a translucent shrimp drifting with the current. Natural instincts take over and after sucking down the tasty treat, I notice a juvenile filefish and quickly gobble it down, too. All the while my brethren scour the same weedline in hopes of filling their bellies – for the moment that is. It quickly becomes obvious that with every nourishing morsel I consume my hunger for more substance increases. Fast forward a few months and we’ve been swimming for quite some time now. My body is continuing to change and for some unfamiliar reason, I can’t keep my eyes off the gorgeous cow that’s been swimming with me since the start. Her remarkable pectoral fins glitter and glow in the warm tropical water as we continue on our never-ending hunt for fresh forage. As the days go by, we can’t help but watch our closest friends get picked off from the seemingly endless armada of fishermen and relentless marine life. It appears that the further west we travel along the Antilles Current, the harder it is to find a quality meal and the easier it is to fall victim to the big ice chest in the sky. I recently received a pen pal from one of my long lost siblings – he pointed out that if I ever see a brightly colored piece of plastic racing through the water with unrealistic eyes…Stay away! He also mentioned that if an easy meal is simply fluttering in the current and makes no attempt to escape; avoid it at all costs!

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Large or small, Florida anglers can’t get enough dolphin. Photo: Steve Dougherty

While the exact migration patterns and seasonal occurrences of dolphin in the Atlantic are largely unknown, with new information provided by Cooperative Science Services Dolphin Research Program (www.dolphintagging.com), anglers and scientist are getting a better idea of what this magnificent species’ extraordinary journey entails. In January of 2009 an angler fishing off the coast of Puerto Rico tagged/released a cow dolphin with an approximate 22-inch fork length. During its 88 days of freedom, the lucky fish traveled 381-miles west and was estimated to have grown 14-inches before being recaptured.

Long gone are the days of bailing 50 dolphin a day and keeping the smallest of peanuts.

In a separate occurrence, a fish tagged in The Bahamas was recovered by a Canadian longliner nearly 1,200-miles away. A bull dolphin tagged off South Carolina and recaptured off the coast of Venezuela performed the most impressive migration. This evidence may shed some light on the theory that dolphin circumnavigate the Atlantic ocean, however, this hypothesis has no scientific backing – as of yet.

Additional information provided by the Dolphin Research Program tells us that a lone dolphin traveled from Marathon to Ft. Pierce in only four days. This means the fish covered an average of 84-miles a day! Traveling only 50-miles a day a dolphin could traverse the entire length of Federal jurisdiction in the South and Mid-Atlantic Bight (roughly 1,600-miles) in just 32 days!

Plan For The Future
For offshore anglers dolphin are without a doubt the most attainable of all pelagic species. Not much more can be said about these aggressive eating machines, as there have been numerous lengthy editorials regarding their incredibly fast growth spurts and reckless abandon for attacking almost anything that swims. With mild flaky white meat and beautiful green and golden hues, as well as the habit of helping anglers avoid the dreaded doughnut, it’s no surprise that dolphin rank at the top of many blue water fishermen’s hit list. The purpose of this editorial is to shed some light on the constant barrage dolphin are faced with as the future of everyone’s favorite pelagic swings in the balance.

It wasn’t until 2004 when the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council created a Fisheries Management Plan regarding dolphin. This regulation, for the first time in history, placed size and bag limits on dolphin. Long gone are the days of bailing 50 dolphin a day and keeping the smallest of peanuts. Historically, the majority of dolphin fishing has been a recreational activity, but during the late 80s and early 90s, commercial harvesters were experiencing diminishing stocks of highly prized game fish like swordfish, tuna and sharks. In turn they focused their sights on dolphin to fill the void and began adapting their gear to increase catch numbers.

Along with bag and size limits for recreational interests, the Federal Management Program introduced an annual catch quota of 1.5 million pounds or 13-percent of the total harvest (both recreation and commercial), for the commercial sector of the U.S. Atlantic fishery. Additional regulations include gear restrictions and permit requirements, as well as the prohibition of longlining for dolphin in the areas off Florida, Georgia and South Carolina that are currently closed to HMS species like swordfish and tuna.

In years past, commercial landings have been much lower than the allowable quota, and while this may prove there’s room for the U.S. commercial fishery to grow, it’s imperative the data is gathered accurately and ethically. Unfortunately, both commercial and recreational landings are largely unreported and even with reported landings it’s likely they’re substantially underestimated.

With attributes such as high reproductive capability, unprecedented growth rates, year-round spawning and young age of maturity, it seems that dolphin would be the perfect choice for commercial interests. However, these characteristics in no way make them exempt from over-fishing by both commercial and recreational harvesters. Although a plan for the future is in place, it may not be enough to solidify their long term well-being.

In the Atlantic, commercial harvesters targeting dolphin primarily use longline gear set along weedlines, temperature breaks and other areas of prolific life. The longline sets generally stretch from 2 to 6-miles in length and utilize a main line with approximately 75 to 80 hooks per mile with a maximum of 480 hooks per set. To increase their success with dolphin, commercial harvesters tailor their gear to suit the smaller quarry. No drop lines are used and haul back is immediate. Commercial longline Sets can also be placed in a circular pattern around weedlines, debris and FADs (fish attracting devices) to facilitate haul back and maximize catch. Longline vessels that primarily target tuna, swordfish and sharks can also target dolphin simultaneously by attaching short leaders to their float buoys. If you think these practices are gut wrenching, think about the techniques and practices that are common with unregulated harvesters.

While there aren’t any sophisticated commercial dolphin fleets in the Caribbean, there are a large number of local and small-scale multi-species harvesters that devastate dolphin populations. Game fish have been exploited throughout the Caribbean from the earliest recorded times and despite a lack of scientific data on the number of vessels in the Caribbean, there’s a strong indication that their efforts are rapidly increasing.

While the introduction of the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council’s Fishery Management Plan is a great start, to be managed effectively there must be an international set of regulations put into place. We can minimize fishery depletions on the home front but in order to have healthy stocks in the long run, everyone needs to play by the same rules. While there’s no scientific data or boundaries that prove ownership to the Atlantic stock of dolphin, its only commonsense that if we reduce the commercial take from both domestic and international harvesters, recreational anglers along the entire east coast will reap the rewards. If more and more dolphin slip through the stronghold of Caribbean commercial harvesters then South Florida anglers will see increased populations, while the domestic longliners who crush dolphin populations east of The Bahamas largely affect the number of dolphin fish seen along Mid-Atlantic States.

Grilled Dolphin On The Menu…Where Does It All Come From?

Whether it’s Publix, Win-Dixie, or your local seafood monger, it seems that nearly every supermarket, restaurant and seafood retailer is selling dolphin. Where does all of this fish come from you ask? In 2007 the top five nations exporting dolphin into the U.S. accounted for 94-percent (roughly 34.2 million pounds) of all dolphin sold commercially. Ironically, the top five exporters providing us with our favorite game fish were China, Ecuador, Peru, Vietnam and Panama. Of the top five, Panama is the only country that has a possible link to harvesting Atlantic stock dolphin, but several other countries in Central and South America as well as the Caribbean harvest dolphin from the Atlantic to export to U.S. markets.

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