Angling Groups Object to NOAA Longline Plan

By June 11, 2024Uncategorized

June 10, 2024

Randy Blankinship
Highly Migratory Species Management Division
Office of Sustainable Fisheries (F/SF1)
NMFS, 1315 East-West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910

Dear Mr. Blankinship:

The undersigned representatives of the recreational fishing and boating community appreciate the opportunity to provide comments on the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for Highly Migratory Species (HMS) Amendment 15 in advance of the final rule. The preferred alternatives in the FEIS are significantly different from those proposed in the draft rule and were not presented for public comment during the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) phase. These new preferred alternatives would significantly alter the spatial and temporal distribution, as well as intensity, of pelagic longline fishing effort in areas of the southeast, where recreational fishing and boating activity is a significant and important component of the blue economy. While we appreciate this informal opportunity to provide staff with comments on the FEIS via this letter, a revised DEIS and proposed rule should be presented to the public for comment rather than proceeding directly to the FEIS/final rule stage without public input. A formal public comment period would provide for a transparent process that gives all stakeholders adequate opportunities to review the updated, 704-page version of Amendment 15 and provide input that can meaningfully inform rulemaking.

Although the preferred alternatives in the FEIS are significantly different from those proposed in the draft rule, the changes do not account for the comments outlined in our October 2, 2023, letter (attached). Given the significant departure between our comments and the FEIS, we ask that you reconsider these comments, as well as our initial concerns about the preferred alternatives in the FEIS, which are outlined below.

Bycatch Thresholds and Monitoring

The most significant changes proposed in the FEIS would allow pelagic longline fishing in the Charleston Bump and East Florida Spatial Management Areas. In the DEIS, each area was divided into monitoring and restricted areas based on modeled risk of pelagic longline interactions with sea turtles, billfish, and shortfin mako sharks (low- and high-risk areas, respectively). We have significant concerns about bycatch of white marlin and other billfish in these areas, especially given tagging data that suggest white marlin migrate through these areas up to twice annually. In the FEIS, the boundaries of low- and high-bycatch risk areas are modified from the DEIS to encourage fishermen to fish in these areas. Effort caps proposed in the DEIS are also significantly increased in the FEIS. The modifications to Amendment 15 to encourage pelagic longline fishing in areas that were originally closed to this activity due to bycatch concerns raises questions about acceptable levels of bycatch and how bycatch will be evaluated, particularly in the monitoring areas. Because the FEIS does not include bycatch caps or thresholds, the metrics that would be used to assess bycatch and levels of bycatch that would trigger closures are unclear. For the monitoring areas, it is also unclear how frequently bycatch in these areas would be reviewed, and how/when NOAA Fisheries will respond. Future drafts of Amendment 15 should include additional details that describe how bycatch will be evaluated, and how any experimental fishing in these areas will be used to further inform or refine bycatch caps. NOAA Fisheries must recognize that the Charleston Bump and East Florida Spatial Management Areas have played a significant role over the past two decades in reducing billfish bycatch and spurring rebuilding and economic growth in those fisheries. The management success and continued value of these areas should not be minimized. An appropriate response by the agency to acknowledge the importance of these areas would be to present a firm bycatch trigger that once met, would prevent additional sets.

EFP Process

In addition, we continue to have concerns about Amendment 15 reducing public transparency and scrutiny of exempted fishing permit (EFP) proposals to allow longlining in spatial management areas. All stakeholders, relevant states and federal fishery management councils should be consulted for their input on proposed research and individual EFP projects in these areas. Given the high public interest in past proposals to allow longlining in closed areas, wide use of these areas by other fisheries, need for scientific critique of proposed research projects, and the existing process by which EFPs may be issued for cooperative research projects, increased (rather than decreased) transparency and scrutiny of proposals is necessary. A public and transparent process is critical to avoiding appearance of conflicts of interest in any research outcomes, providing reasonable opportunities for input on individual EFP projects and research plans, and ensuring studies in the closed areas are scientifically rigorous and provide useful data for monitoring, assessment, and management.

Management Decisions Based on PRiSM

Our October 2, 2023, letter outlined several issues with the use of PRiSM as the sole scientific basis for management action in Amendment 15. Mathematical and statistical models are regularly used for management and decision making in many phases of our daily lives; however, the best example is in hurricane tracking and preparedness. A critical aspect of this concept is that no one model can truly explain a natural system thus we use multiple that may be more applicable in specific scenarios, building ensemble models for prediction and decision making.

Yet, in the case of PRISM, we are effectively using just one model because it is all that is available, and we do not yet know how it will relate to real world catch and encounter rates. If we did this in hurricane modeling, simply put, it would be disastrous. Until we can confirm this model works well for all the species of interest, we should consider the outputs as suggestions compared to true empirical evidence for decision making. We continue to believe that PRiSM should be further evaluated as one of many tools available to manage these fisheries. In addition, and as articulated in previous comments, there is a need to utilize other fisheries dependent sources of catch data from the closed areas. Despite the challenges of standardization, NOAA Fisheries must explore ways of using all fisheries dependent data instead of a relying exclusively on one gear type that continues to show a down trend of effort. Now is the time to start establishing time series from other gear types.

If Amendment 15 is implemented, NOAA Fisheries should evaluate how the forecasted interactions with bycatch species under PRiSM match the monitoring data from the first year of analysis. In other words, NOAA should estimate the number/frequency of interactions with bycatch species from the video monitoring data and compare that to what the model suggested the interaction frequency should be in each area. This will provide valuable data and ground truthing on the PRISM model relative to longline interactions, as we know the data input into the PRISM model is lacking for many bycatch species and there are significant concerns it may be misrepresenting the preferred habitat for species like white marlin. This should be done for each area of interest and repeated as often as possible for both EFP and non-EFP fisheries.

Economic and Social Impacts on the Recreational Fishing Community

Although Section 5.4.6 of the FEIS broadly recognizes that HMS recreational fishermen in coastal counties of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas may be impacted by this rule and that gear conflicts with the pelagic longline fishery are possible, we feel that the economic impacts of this rulemaking on recreational fishing in these areas has not been adequately considered. Notably, the FEIS also fails to consider effects of this rulemaking on non-HMS recreational fishing interests in this region despite the social and economic importance of recreational fishing in the southeast. This section also acknowledges the conservation concerns of recreational fishermen (regarding bycatch of species such as billfish on pelagic longlines) and notes that “the preferred measures in Amendment 15 are expected to better protect bycatch species, including recreational target species in the spatial management areas,” and would provide more fishing opportunities to recreational fishermen in the long run. This statement is untrue. To the contrary, opening areas that are closed to pelagic longlining increases the likelihood that recreationally important species in these areas such as billfish are caught on longlines. While this would provide more fishing opportunities for commercial fishermen, the same cannot be said for the recreational fishery.

Conclusion

Given longstanding concerns about opening the pelagic longline fishery in these areas and the concerns outlined above, we respectfully ask that a revised DEIS and proposed rule for Amendment 15 be presented to the public for comment rather than proceeding directly to the FEIS/final rule stage without public input. The recreational fishing community is supportive of periodic evaluation of management measures, including closed areas, to ensure their continued effectiveness but that evaluation must proceed with measured approach that respects the conservation objectives that drove the establishment of the areas over 20 years ago. We also ask that the comments and needs of the recreational fishing community be considered as NOAA Fisheries considers the future of Amendment 15 and spatial management of the pelagic longline fishery. Thank you for this opportunity to provide feedback.

Sincerely,

Glenn Hughes, President
American Sportfishing Association

Dr. Guy Harvey, Ph.D., Chairman Emeritus
Guy Harvey Foundation

Jeff Angers, President
Center for Sportfishing Policy

Jason Schratwieser, President
International Game Fish Association

Patrick Murray, President
Coastal Conservation Association

Frank Hugelmeyer, President
National Marine Manufacturers Association

Jeff Crane, President and CEO
Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation

You can also read the full letter by clicking here.

Kevin Hickson

Author Kevin Hickson

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