Charter captain pans Pew/Audubon report on baitfish

Local charter fishing leaders are saying a recent report by The Pew Charitable Trusts and Audubon Florida is not based on the reality of the fishing industry in Destin.

The study claims waterbirds, like pelicans and gulls, could be in danger of food shortages if the populations of small forage fish declined along the coast lines of Florida. As a result, Pew and Audubon are recommending further studies and possible change in fishing policy and regulations, such as explicitly accounting for the dietary needs of waterbirds before expanding fisheries or allowing development of new fisheries.

Audubon Florida’s director of wildlife conservation Julie Wraithmell said forage fish are an important part of a massive food web, and thus warrant the attention of conservationists, governments and fishermen alike.

“Because of the importance, they are extremely vulnerable to exploitation. The report is calling attention to the fact that they are vulnerable,” Wraithmell told The Log.

Mike Eller, captain of the Lady Em and co-president of the Destin Charter Boat Association, said the report, and the resulting recommendations concerning fishing are not based on reality, because there is no evidence that forage fish populations are declining. He said since the state banned commercial net fishing in 1995, there is little commercial market for small forage fish in Destin. And fishermen can’t possibly catch enough of the fish with a hook and line to hurt the population or the birds’ food supply.

Thus, Pew and Audubon are striking up fear of something that isn’t there, Eller says.

“I can guarantee if the oxygen leaves the room, we’re all going to die,” Eller told The Log. “But they are looking for regulation on something that’s not happening.”

Researchers reported that fish such as sardines, scads, herrings, ballyhoo and mullet accounted for 20 percent of all commercial catch off the coasts of Florida in 2012. Still, Pew and Audubon researchers confirmed Eller’s claim that there is no evidence that current populations of such fish are on the decline.

“The recommendations in the report are more aimed at being proactive and taking steps to protect forage fish before they reach a crisis, because they are so important for prey for other marine wildlife,” Pew director of U.S. Oceans, Southeast, Holly Binns told The Log. “We want to make sure that we’ve got the appropriate safeguards in place.”

While the Pew and Audubon report doesn’t seem to address any current or imminent danger to wildlife, it is a timely piece of ammunition for groups working to permanently implement the current ban on certain fishing nets in state waters. 

In October, a Leon County Circuit Court judge struck down the 18-year-old ban on gill nets and other nets over 500-square-feet within three miles of the coast in the Atlantic and nine miles in the Gulf. That ruling allowed fishing with such nets for about a week, until the First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee granted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission petition to stop such actions.

Now the FWC and the Coastal Conservation Association Florida are asking the courts to permanently uphold the ban, while the Wakulla Commercial Fishermen’s Association and the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association are fighting to remove it.

Meanwhile, the harvest of small bait fish off the Emerald Coast is small business. The largest portion of the forage fish that made up 20 percent of the state’s catch in 2012 were caught in federal waters off the southern coasts of the state, where the state government has no jurisdiction.

Commercial fishermen docking in Destin often don’t even use local bait fish, Eller said. They import their bait fish, mostly from Canada and the northern east coast of the United States.

“There are millions of tons of those fish and nobody is fishing for them,” Eller said. “You’d have to do something pretty drastic to affect those fish population numbers.”

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