Earlier this month, the Caribbean Fishery Management Council (CFMC) held its August 2023 Council meeting, which covered a wide range of topics including dolphin management in the U.S. Caribbean Sea. Currently, the Council is working on developing Amendment 3 to create conservation and management measures for dolphin and wahoo in order to ensure undersized individuals have adequate time to mature and reproduce and to take a precautionary approach to management for species with limited management structure. During the meeting, the Council selected its preferred alternatives which include a 24″ minimum size for the commercial or recreational harvest of dolphin in federal waters around Puerto Rico. In addition, the Council selected a dolphin bag and vessel trip limit of five dolphin per person and 15 dolphin per vessel per trip., whichever is less. The selection of these preferred alternatives aligns with the Council’s decision to implement the same management structure for dolphin in federal waters off St. John, St. Thomas, and St. Croix. This a major step forward for dolphin conservation and management in the U.S. Caribbean Sea.
The amendment in this form will now be prepared for final Council action at the December meeting and if approved at that time will be forwarded to the Department of Commerce for review and possible implementation during the later part of 2024.
We applaud the Council for recognizing the need for timely, meaningful action and continuing to take a strong position of leadership in the management of dolphin not only in the Caribbean but also across the entire Western Central Atlantic.
A significant step forward in the management and conservation of dolphin in the Western Central Atlantic (WCA) has been taken by the U.S. Caribbean Fisheries Management Council (CFMC). In their recent meeting, the Council identified a 24” minimum length and 10 per person / 32 per vessel limit a day for St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John as selected alternatives for moving forward with the development of Amendment 3 to their Fisheries Management Plan for pelagics. There was also strong support for adding those alternatives back into the amendment for Puerto Rico, which would establish uniform regulations across the entire area managed by the CFMC. Currently, the only recreational regulation in these jurisdictions is a daily vessel limit of 30 for Puerto Rico. This is a major step forward for the conservation and management of the WCA dolphin stock considering Puerto Rico and the USVIs constitute the second highest amount of recorded recreational landings in the WCA according to our published research last year. Click here to learn more.
The stated rationale for these actions was “the need to develop conservation and management measures for dolphin to ensure undersized individuals adequate time to mature and reproduce
and, consistent with the Magnuson-Stevens Act and its National Standards, to protect against overfishing (or overharvest, over utilization) or prevent Acceptable Catch Levels from being exceeded, while achieving optimum yield”. Thus, the Council used well-established science as guidance for fulfilling their responsibility to implement conservation measures in response to declines in the stock. By taking this strong direction, the CFMC has recognized the concerns about the status of the dolphin fishery in the WCA and taken a position of leadership in the management and conservation of dolphin in U.S. areas of jurisdiction as well as the WCA. At its upcoming meeting in August, the CFMC will have the opportunity to continue that leadership by approving the amendment for submission to the Secretary of Commerce for review and potential final approval. In the meantime, the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, as described in last month’s newsletter, is continuing to move forward at a slow pace in considering modifications to dolphin management for the U.S. East Coast that both specific data and input from many anglers says are past due and needed as soon as possible. Read last month’s article below on the status of U.S. East Coast management.
In June 2021, after five years of work, the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (SAFMC, herein Council) finalized the latest update to their Dolphin/Wahoo Fisheries Management Plan (DW FMP). This update, referred to as Amendment 10 (A10), included many reforms and changes, but the most significant in terms of reduction of fishing pressure on the Western Central Atlantic stock was a change in the daily recreational vessel limit from 60 dolphin per day to 54 for U.S. federal waters. On May 2, 2022, A10 completed movement through the federal fisheries review process and went into effect (click here to review that final rule).
During development of A10, the Council received a large amount of input expressing concern about a troubling decline in the WCA dolphin fishery and the need to strengthen regulations and augment conservation measures. Input came from a broad range of those in the fishing community including many recreational anglers. Early in the process, the Council received both a technical and high-level presentation by our organization on August 26th, and September 16th, 2020. Both of those presentations included information about the paucity of data on the stock, changes in seasonal patterns, and increase in pressure on the fishery and called for broader support of conservation measures and enhancements including a minimum size for all U.S. Atlantic waters. Those talks were published on the safmc.net site and are available at this link. Following these talks, our organization as well as many respected and knowledgeable individuals like Guy Harvey and the Guy Harvey Foundation, Blair Wickstrom and the Florida Sportsman magazine, Bill Shedd the CEO of AFTCO, Capt. Bouncer Smith, Capt. Scott Stanczyk, Capt. Skip Bradeen, and many others provided written and/or oral statements about the need to strengthen and improve management for dolphin. Based on this input it appeared the Council was moving toward meaningful changes in dolphin regulations, providing enhanced protection for the fishery. However, as it appeared these changes might become approved, North Carolina Waterman United raised a last-minute objection stating “unnecessarily forcing a reduction in the vessel limit of dolphin on the charter fleet in North Carolina resulting in a detrimental economic impact on one subsector in one region greater than any perceived precautionary benefit it may achieve is unequitable and arbitrary.” North Carolina Waterman United’s full statement can be viewed at this link. Following this information, the SAFMC council approved minimal changes to strengthen conservation and management for dolphin in A10.
Figure 1. All (A.) June and (B.) August fishing hours for Killin’ Time II monitored from 2017 to 2021 off the Lower and Central Keys with a vessel tracking device. For every trip, the number of dolphinfish kept and tagged were recorded along with time of initial hookup in a school. The hours spent (C.) searching and tagging for dolphinfish schools until initial hookup is provided over the same period for June and August. The number of (D.) kept (brought back to the dock) and tagged fish is provided over the same period.
As A10 was in its finishing stages it was recognized by some Council members that despite being five years in the making the A10 wasn’t complete since it did not include formal consideration of some important management criteria such as revising minimum length. As a result, Regulatory Amendment 3 (RA3) was started with the primary components being a meaningful reduction in the daily vessel limit and changes to the size limit, including to implement a size limit north of the South/North Carolina line where a limit currently does not exist. At the June 2022 Council meeting a strong case was made through public comment, again including highly respected and knowledgeable individuals and a Florida Sportsman magazine sponsored petition signed by thousands of anglers, to move forward in a timely manner with RA3. Included was tagging and catch and effort data from the top tagging team for the Dolphinfish Research Program based in the Lower Keys, the Killin’ Time II fishing team, that documented the decline in their catch and effort, decrease in number of kept fish, and decrease in number of tagged fish per school in the Florida Straits over the past five years and provided statistical confirmation of the trend being reported by many other individuals (Figure 1 above).
Also at the June 2022 Council meeting, the concept of Management Strategy Evaluation (MSE) was introduced as a potential methodology for developing management actions for the dolphin fishery. MSE is emerging as an approach to identify the most effective measures for managing a resource, dolphin being a prime example, that has numerous factors impacting it and, likewise, numerous options for minimizing negative impacts and/or preventing decline. As a part of the MSE presentation an optimistic timeline for a dolphin MSE project was included. During discussion it was recognized that Council staff resources were not sufficient to move forward in the near-term with both an MSE project and RA3. The MSE project was identified as the priority with the Council’s workplan at that time including a return to work on RA3 at the December 2022 Council meeting.
Figure 2. Annual U.S. Atlantic (recreational and commercial combined) dolphinfish landings from 1989 to 2022 with a linear trendline. Recreational landings were obtained from this link. Commercial landings were obtained here. The value for 2020 is highly uncertain due to the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on NMFS survey capabilities and changes to fleet effort dynamics around societal lockdowns. U.S. commercial landings for 2022 have not been published by NMFS yet. Therefore, the 2022 value represents only the U.S. Atlantic recreational fleet. Monroe County, Florida, is included in the data.
Several items of significance have occurred over the past six nine months. The progress made on the MSE is well behind the original projection, work on RA3 has continued to be pushed back with the appearance that it will be delayed until after initial results from the MSE are available, and preliminary full-year 2022 dolphin landings data has become available. Some delay in the MSE project is not surprising given the optimistic nature of the original projection, however, the reality is that the project, although very worthwhile, is complex and will take a significant amount of time to complete. The addition of 2022 landings data extended the downward trend that has been in place for the past 30+ years. Above is a graph of combined U.S. dolphin recreational and commercial landings since 1989 based on National Marine Fisheries Service Marine Recreational Information Program and Commercial Fisheries Statistics that shows the decline.
When progress to date with the MSE project is coupled with the amount of remaining work required to provide meaningful management guidance, there is the risk that the dolphin stock could be at a level that will make it more difficult to halt the downward trend and begin a move in the positive direction. At its current pace and level of complexity the MSE project could take 1-2 years to complete. An amendment will then be needed to implement the MSE. History says the time from amendment start to implementation is 2-3 years at best. So, without a more timely amendment timeline it will be 4-5 years until stronger management measures that appear to be needed now along the U.S. East Coast are in place.
The DW FMP calls for a precautionary approach to dolphin management and maintaining catch at historical levels. The current approach appears to be neither precautionary nor successful in maintaining catch at historical levels. While MSE very well may be the management tool of the future, until it is developed and in place, stronger management is needed now in order to fulfill its precautionary manner, managing toward returning the stock to historical levels, and most importantly minimizing the probability the stock will not be at a critical level by MSE completion.
As well documented the dolphin fishery is an international fishery (click here to review our publication on this topic) ultimately requiring an international management approach to be fully successful. Stronger U.S. Atlantic regulations will not fully address the downward trend in the stock, but given the size of the U.S. component, moving forward expeditiously in a precautionary and proactive manner needs to be a high enough priority with the Council for immediately moving forward with RA3. In addition, each other international jurisdiction needs to do its part in effectively managing the fishery. The U.S. Caribbean Fisheries Management Council appears to recognize concerns about the current and future state of the dolphin fishery by proactively pursuing an amendment that strengthens management in their area. The prospective amendment includes daily bag limits, vessel limits and minimum length regulation changes. However, many other jurisdictions around the Caribbean are not doing so, and effective international management needs leadership and coordination that currently does not exist to the degree needed.
Historically, many management measures taken by the SAFMC have been for species that have reached a critical state necessitating actions and a recovery process that are more painful than if sufficient management measures were taken earlier. There is still a chance to avoid such a scenario for dolphin, but for that to happen the Council must adopt a greater sense of urgency in strengthening the management of dolphin by promptly moving forward with RA3.
Figure 3. Major Western Central Atlantic (WCA) (top panel) and Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETP) (bottom panel) dolphinfish specific management measures or plans enacted by specific countries, regional fishery management organizations, or fishery councils since 2003.
Recently, the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council reviewed options for the development of a new federal regulatory amendment (Regulatory Amendment 2) as their previous full amendment (Amendment 10) is proceeding through the Secretary of Commerce approval phase. Toward the end of the development of Amendment 10, a significant number of public comments (including from BOSF/DRP) were received that favored stronger conservation measures than were being included. However, after 4-5 years spent developing the amendment, the committee and council elected to bring the process to a close while at the same time recognizing the possible need to implement stronger changes. As a result, the process of formulating the regulatory amendment has begun. Development is projected to take place through the remainder of this year and into early 2023.
The actions currently included in the new amendment are:
Prior to the SAFMC meeting and in response to the lack of stronger measures in Amendment 10, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission proactively approved implementation of the regulations below for dolphin in Florida Atlantic waters (FAW) effective May 1 2022:
We recently submitted another letter to the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) urging them to take action to ensure better management and a healthy future for dolphinfish within the western central Atlantic Ocean. Embedded below is our letter for your reference. In short, a process which started within the SAFMC four years ago to revise the U.S. Atlantic fishery management plan for dolphin and wahoo (also known as Amendment 10) has ended with little to no action to safeguard the Atlantic dolphinfish fishery despite mounting evidence of negative changes in the fishery. In addition, there were hundreds of comments by recreational anglers and a handful of fishing companies that requested the Council reduce vessel limits from 60 fish per trip down to 30 fish per trip, reduce bag limits to 6 fish per trip, and establish a consistent 20″ minimum size along the U.S. East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, yet the SAFMC only arrived at a reduction of 60 fish per vessel per trip down to 54 fish per trip with the potential for this policy to be eliminated all together with the development of a new framework action in 2022. Furthermore, certain for-hire segments along the U.S. East Coast are seeking exemption from any pending management changes to the fishery because those entities feel they should be regarded as equal to the commercial sector. The letter below was published on the SAFMC website on September 10th, 2021, two days before a new dolphinfish recovery occurred for our program that provided further evidence of connectivity of dolphinfish along the U.S. East Coast with the Gulf of Mexico and as well as several more recoveries from Florida to the Mid-Atlantic Bight demonstrated the benefits of releasing small young-of-the-year fish that grew 3″ to 15″ fork-length while at liberty. While online public comments to the
SAFMC are currently closed with regard to dolphinfish management, you can still write a letter to the Executive Director of SAFMC, Mr. John Carmichael ,urging him to take action to safeguard the U.S. Atlantic dolphinfish fishery for the future. Direct your comments to the address below:
Executive Director of SAFMC
Mr. John Carmichael
4055 Faber Place Drive, Suite 201
North Charleston, SC 29405
When compared to other pelagic fish species, dolphin have not received the same management attention by domestic or international fishery management agencies over the same amount of time. In the past decade, NOAA Fisheries has conducted between 115 to 125 stock assessments per year, but never for dolphin. Internationally, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission conducted the first modern stock assessment for dolphin in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean; while this assessment is important, there exists no comparable assessment in the Atlantic. Population assessments are crucial to prevent overfishing from occurring and help fishers to catch the maximum number of fish over the long-term. Negative signals of changes in the Atlantic dolphin fishery have been observed. Does this mean dolphin are being overfished?
Scientifically, it is unknown. But, anecdotal and research observations over a broad area, as well as the number of unknowns with regards to the level of directed landings and bycatch of the species, raise many red flags regarding the health of the stock in our region. Recently, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) wrapped up its March meeting and identified its preferred management actions for revisions to the Dolphin/Wahoo Atlantic Coast Fishery Management Plan, which, given the rise in fishing effort over the past 2 decades in our region as well as the combination of many other compounding anthropogenic factors, does not go far enough to ensure the conservation of dolphin. In their meeting, Council members voted (11-5) in support of a reduction in the vessel limit to 48 dolphinfish per vessel for all recreational anglers along the U.S. East Coast. This would represent a 2.32% reduction in landings (or 383,477 lbs wet weight) and is the first major action the Council is considering to take to help safeguard the dolphin stock since Amendment 2 expanded the minimum size to South Carolina in 2012. When considering that NOAA Fisheries has documented a 3 fold and 1.5 fold increase in marine recreational trips in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico in their most recent Fisheries of the United States reports to 140 million and 56 million trips, respectively, this reduction does not seem in
line with the rise in fishing effort. Although not yet formally included, the Council did decide to initiate a framework action on developing a 20″ size limit for anglers in North Carolina and any location to the north. Lastly, there were several conservation actions that were brought forward rather widely in public comment but the Council chose not to include. These include a minimum size increase (although the framework action may partially address this), the use of circle hooks when bailing, and a vessel limit lower than 48. Below, is the history of major management decisions for dolphin in the Western Central Atlantic (WCA) and Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETP). In order to justify the need for additional management and conservation measures for dolphin in the WCA, it is necessary to review the past 2 decades of dolphin fisheries management and compare this with the rise in fishing effort over the same time period. Check back soon for these results.
Figure 2. Timeline of major dolphinfish related management and regulatory actions by United States fishery management councils (WCA Management (U.S. EEZ)) and country or Regional Fisheries Management Organization (RFMO) management actions in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETP) by year. Stars indicated South Atlantic Fishery Management Council amendments to the original dolphin/wahoo fishery management plan approved in 2003. The flag indicates the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission’s modern stock assessment of Ecuadorian and Peruvian dolphinfish commercial fisheries in 2016. CFMC = Caribbean Fishery Management Council. See list below for more information regarding the timeline events.
The first and most comprehensive fishery management plan for dolphin and wahoo in the U.S. was approved by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council in 2003. The plan included 24 actions that defined the management unit, set permit requirements, established a maximum sustainable and optimum yield, established a commercial landings cap and recreational vessel and bag limit, and a 20″ minimum size in Florida and Georgia. Click here to see the original dolphin FMP.
The amendment was included in the Comprehensive Annual Catch Limit Amendment. This amendment established allowable biological catch (ABCs), annual catch limits (ACLs), and accountability measures (AMs) as well as allocations for both commercial and recreational sectors; prohibited bag limit sales of dolphin from “for-hire” vessels; and established a minimum size limit of 20″ FL for South Carolina.
The expansion of the minimum size from Florida and Georgia waters to include South Carolina was established to prevent the targeting of peanut or chicken dolphin, reduce waste, and increase yield in the fishery. This action was adopted in part to establish similar regulations off states which already had minimum size limit regulations (i.e., Florida and Georgia). This action allowed the harvest only after most female dolphin are sexually mature and have spawned. The Council concluded that other proposed measures (i.e., bag limit, trip limit, etc.) were the primary measures to protect and conserve the resource but expanding the minimum size into South Carolina would provide additional benefits to the stock and enhance existing state regulations. The Council determined this action best achieveed the goals of the FMP and the management objectives to: (1) address localized reduction in fish abundance, (3) minimize conflict and/or competition between recreational and commercial user groups, and (4) optimize the social and economic benefits of the fishery.
At the time, the loss in producer surplus to the for-hire sector of approximately $15,000 was expected as a result of the proposed recreational minimum size limit for dolphin. In addition, it was estimated that this action would only affect the 134 vessels with for-hire dolphin-wahoo permits in South Carolina and therefore the loss in producer surplus per for-hire vessel was estimated at approximately $112. Click here for the final rule.
Allowed dolphin and wahoo fillets (with skin intact) to enter the U.S. EEZ after lawful harvest in The Bahamas; Specified that two fillets of any length of dolphin, wahoo, and snapper-grouper were equivalent to one fish; explicitly prohibited the sale or purchase of any dolphin, wahoo, or snapper grouper recreationally harvested in The Bahamas. Click here for the final rule.
The Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission utilized an 8-year monthly catch per unit effort time series of Ecuadorian and Peruvian artisanal longline, length composition, and tuna purse seine bycatch data to conduct an exploratory stock assessment of dolphin in the southern Eastern Pacific Ocean. IATTC was unable to draw any conclusions about stock status because no reference points were previously defined in the region. However, advances were made in the understanding of dolphin population dynamics and further research and data collection was prioritized (e.g., movements, growth, and gender-specific landings) to strength the results of future stock assessments. Click here to read about this stock assessment.
Established a dolphin commercial trip limit of 4,000 lb (1,814 kg), round weight, once 75 percent of the commercial ACL is reached for vessels with a Federal commercial permit for Atlantic dolphin and wahoo. Click here for the final rule.
The most impactful potential conservation measure to the Dolphin/Wahoo fishery management plan pertains to the potential reduction in the recreational vessel limit from 60 to 48 dolphinfish per vessel. According to the SAFMC, total recreational landings would be reduced by 2.32%, or 383,477 lbs wet weight, with a 48 fish vessel limit for the Atlantic region. Given the rise in global recreational fishing effort as well as need to mitigate climate impacts on dolphin this reduction does not go far enough for this species. According to Cisneros-Mata et al. (2019) dolphinfish were identified as the species to have the largest catch reductions due to climate change. In addition, Freire et al. (2019) documented that since the 90s, recreational landings of dolphinfish have been on the rise and North America accounts for a large proportion of those landings. Based on those studies as well as the level of unknowns regarding U.S. recreational landings totals, directed international commercial landings in the WCA, as well as bycatch, a reduction of more than 2.32% in recreational landings is needed in order to safeguard the WCA dolphin stock.
Amendment 10 also increases the recreational sector allocation to 93% of the total ACL (24,570,764 lbs ww) while reducing the commercial allocation to 7% of the ACL. Amendment 10 also stands to allow properly permitted commercial fishing vessels with trap, pot, or buoy gear on board that are not authorized for use in the dolphin wahoo fishery to possess 500 pounds per trip of dolphin and wahoo caught by rod and reel. We feel this trip limit is too high and should be 250 pounds per trip.
In March 2016, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) initiated a process to consider changes to Amendment 10 of the U.S. Atlantic Coast Dolphin/Wahoo fishery management plan (FMP) in reaction to the commercial annual catch limit (ACL) being met and an ensuing harvest closure in 2015. Last April, the SAFMC’s Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) recommended a new acceptable biological catch (ABC) level for dolphin and wahoo after incorporating recreational landings data from new methods, a revised U.S. commercial landings data stream, and data from the highest U.S. landings between 1994 and 2007. The SAFMC’s goals are to incorporate the SSC’s new catch level recommendations and to address management changes needed in the fishery based on public input in Amendment 10. After a scoping process that
began in 2018, after a scoping process that began in 2018, the SAFMC has arrived at preferred alternatives for changes to Amendment 10 and the Dolphin/Wahoo FMP. While the SAFMC introduces some key conservation measures to help alleviate the growing pressures on dolphin, within the draft amendment, there is no discussion of expanding size limits along the U.S. Atlantic coast to ensure more dolphinfish reach maximum reproductive output before being harvested. Furthermore, there is no discussion of expanding conservation measures, including size, vessel, or bag limits, to the Gulf of Mexico, a location that feeds dolphin to the Florida Keys and U.S. Atlantic coast. NOW is the time to provide your comments to the SAFMC. Click here to read our letter to the SAFMC, which could not have been compiled without your participation in our tagging program since the onset of this study. We provide this letter to you for you to read our suggestions on how to ensure conservation for dolphin in the WCA. Comments are now closed but we will keep you informed on when a new open public comment period.
Embedded below is our letter for your reference.Public Comment Dolphin Wahoo Amendment 10
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