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Years of overfishing by commercial fleets has taken a toll, however. Populations of billfish and sharks are in steep decline. Among the mainstays of the $2.3 billion recreational fishery along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the white marlin is especially imperiled and in danger of extinction. But the numbers of other billfish, as well as tuna and sharks, are also falling, according to biologist James Chambers, former manager of migratory species for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).
The Biodiversity Legal Foundation and Chambers last year petitioned NMFS to have the white marlin listed under the Endangered Species Act, saying it had been driven to thirteen percent of its maximum sustainable yield (MSY), a measure of its abundance. Any number below 100 percent means the species is overfished, and a number below 50 percent indicates the overall population is shrinking. Using MSY as a gauge, blue marlin are at 40 percent, swordfish at 65 percent, and sailfish, when last surveyed in 1991, at 62 percent, according to Chambers. Coastal sharks, including hammerheads, are also fewer, down by 50 to 80 percent from historic levels, says Chambers. His research makes use of statistics compiled by NMFS and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, which tracks tunas and some 30 other species.
Despite those numbers, recreational anglers pull plenty of sharks from South Florida waters, and sailfish are caught here every day. Although a stock assessment of sailfish has not been conducted in more than a decade, Chambers surmises that the population is in better shape than it was in 1991 because its chief spawning ground off Florida's east coast has been off-limits to commercial fleets since March 2001. Sailfish are particularly susceptible to long-liners who set thousands of hooks baited for swordfish and then discard as by-catch everything else.
"Sailfish are still overfished," says the Maryland-based Chambers, "but Miami is the epicenter of the winter population along the East Coast, and with spring here, it's spawning central out in the Gulf Stream."
To be sure, recreational anglers and tourists who pay an average of $500 for a half-day of charter-boat fishing are not responsible for plunging populations of game fish. But even though the recreational catch represents a minnow-size portion of all fish taken along the East Coast, most anglers and charter-boat captains practice catch-and-release for everything except those fish destined for the dinner table. Most billfish tournaments, including last week's $100,000 Yamaha Contender Miami Billfish Tournament, require the release of all hooked fish.
Many anglers now also use barbless circle hooks, more rounded in shape than the traditional, barbed J hooks. The hooks have been controversial. Some anglers say circle hooks are not as effective as J hooks in snagging fish. But many others believe circle hooks minimize injuries because they usually catch the fish in the corner of the mouth and are rarely swallowed. Removing a swallowed J hook from a fish -- said to be gut-hooked -- can cause fatal injuries. This year for the first time, Miami Billfish Tournament rules required circle hooks to be used by all of the more than 400 anglers scheduled to compete on some 110 boats.
In three days of all-out fishing, tournament officials expected more than 200 sailfish to be caught. It was hoped that few would die from trauma. None was brought to the dock.
"Historically, part of the experience of fishing is being able to brag about what you caught," says Ron Taylor, a scientist at the Florida Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg. "And with Florida growing by 900 people a day, fishing mortality is beginning to affect us. It is sinking in: You can't kill everything you catch.
"Personally it bothers me. Why in the world would anyone want to kill a sailfish?"
Many charter-boat captains say they won't kill a sailfish, or any other billfish, or any creature from the sea that is not on that night's dinner menu. Others maintain that they only kill billfish and sharks when their clients demand it. "We only kill for a trophy, and we tell people right up front, so there's never a misunderstanding," says Frank Godwin, who has been chartering out of Crandon Park Marina on Key Biscayne for 27 years. "I don't throw four sailfish on the dock. That has no value."
Veteran charter-boat captain Bouncer Smith says he has not brought a sailfish to the dock in more than five years. "I would never kill a sailfish," says Smith, who docks his boat Bouncer's Dusky 33 at the Miami Beach Marina. "And I tell my customers who want a mount that the fish does not have to be killed."
Indeed in most cases dead fish are no longer used in mounting. What the angler who wants a trophy on the wall gets now is not a skin of the fish but a fiberglass replica, fashioned from a stock assortment of precast plastic molds. "Only eight to ten percent of our mounts are skin mounts," says Bob Dowling, sales manager for Gray Taxidermy, the Pompano Beach firm that claims to be the world's largest supplier of fish mounts. On request Gray and other taxidermists can use the bill and some fins from a sailfish in a replica mount. (Ironically the large characteristic fin of the sailfish is not used in replica mounts, according to Dowling, because it is a thin membrane and quickly disintegrates when the fish dies.) The jaws and teeth of sharks are also used. In most cases, however, the carcasses of sailfish, sharks, and all other fish sent to taxidermists are merely thrown away or smoked to be kept as food for the charter-boat captain.