MIAMI – Jon Reynolds, a Florida Keys charter boat fishing captain, opened up a plastic trash bag during a meeting with federal regulators and pulled out a huge ball of thick monofilament line that’s used to target en masse mahi mahi, also commonly known as dolphinfish.
He removed the discarded line by hand from the ocean during a recent outing on his Drop Back charter boat, which he operates out of Islamorada.
“To even have this in a fishery anymore in 2022, this is disgraceful — to even do to the ocean,” Reynolds told National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials at the meeting. “Our customers are sickened by the fact that our country is even allowing this gear to be deployed into the water. I mean, this is absolutely insane.”
Reynolds, who also heads a conservation group called South Atlantic Fishing Environmentalists, or SAFE, said an 11-mile-long pelagic longline can have as many as 1,100 large J hooks that snare the bright blue and yellow migratory fish, which are increasingly popular at restaurants, fish markets and grocery stores across the country.
And, it’s because of this practice that Reynolds and other charter captains, as well as recreational anglers, say they are seeing fewer mahi mahi out in the ocean, and the ones they are catching are much smaller than these multi-generational fishermen have been used to catching throughout their lives.
“We’re acting like this is ‘Unsolved Mysteries.’ We all know this,” Reynolds said. “You can’t go hunting deer with machine guns.”
The federal government allows commercial anglers to lay 32 nautical miles of line at a time. Reynolds said there are 70 longline vessels currently targeting mahi, most based in northern Florida and North Carolina.
He said longliners have recently begun targeting mahi in Puerto Rico. Representatives from the Bluewater Fishermen’s Association, the trade group representing longliners, could not be reached for comment.
The purpose of the meeting, hosted by NOAA and the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council at the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center at the Islander Resort, was so federal regulators could receive input from the charter sector on future rules to maintain a healthy fishery.
The roughly 30 captains and mates in attendance were in agreement on two things: Their catch is way down and long-lining is to blame.
“This fishery has gone from healthy to almost nonexistent in 36 months; that’s the life span of a fish,” said Larry Wren, owner of First Choice Charters in Islamorada.
This is bad for business, and for the environment, they say. Keys anglers are still catching plenty of smaller dolphin. But missing from the fishery, they say, are sustainable numbers of larger “gaffer” dolphin that start around 20 pounds and grow up to seven feet and 88 pounds.
Mahi live up to five years and can start reproducing at four to five months old, according to NOAA. Mahi fishing brings in $450 million to the U.S. economy, and most of that flows to Florida, according to SAFE.
Not only do people fly in from around the world to fish for mahi in the Keys, they pay a lot for charter boats to go after them. Unlike other species that can be lured to a boat using chum, mahi fishing is more akin to hunting.
Captains drive their boats out to the reef line looking for tell-tale signs that the fish are in the area — like frigate birds circling overhead. They also look for sargasso weed lines and floating debris, under which mahi are often found chasing smaller bait fish. The boat is in constant motion trolling baits like ballyhoo for miles, eating up gallons of fuel in the process.
“Every year, it gets a little harder. This is the first year I told my clients I can’t take them dolphin fishing because of fuel,” said Gary Salyers, 43, who’s been in the charter business for 20 years.
The Keys charter fleet welcomed last year a federal rule lowering the recreational bag limit on mahi from 60 fish per boat to 54. And, they’re not opposed to that going even lower if it would help bring back the numbers and sizes of fish that used to be commonly found off South Florida waters.
“A bag limit of 20, 30, 40 fish, I’m happy with. We’re trying to get back to those numbers. We’re not seeing them anymore,” said Justin Hopper, 53, captain of the Fantastic II, out of the Holiday Inn marina in Key Largo.