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U.S. North Atlantic swordfish harvest levels are sustainable.
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Following passage of the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, the five Atlantic Regional Fishery Management Councils worked diligently toward management of Atlantic swordfish for more than a decade. Due to the highly-migratory nature of swordfish, they are harvested by fishermen all along the Atlantic coast, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. Therefore, the Atlantic Swordfish Fishery Management Plan was developed jointly by all five Atlantic Councils. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council was appointed to lead the effort. In late 1989, their culminating accomplishment, proposed Amendment 1 to the Atlantic Swordfish Fishery Management Plan, was approved to go out to public hearings, moving along toward becoming law. This proposal called for a unilateral closure of the U.S. directed swordfish fishery and allowed only an incidental catch limit of six swordfish per trip for tuna and shark fishermen.

As news of the proposed closure spread, some fishermen and other interested persons were inspired to prevent the ineffective sacrifice of American swordfish fishermen. At that time, American fishermen only caught approximately 29% of all North Atlantic swordfish caught each year. On December 22, 1989, a group of New Jersey pelagic longline fishermen, dock owners, dealers, and suppliers met at the Barnegat Light Fire House to form the basis of Blue Water Fishermen’s Association. Unlike some fishermen’s groups, BWFA was not formed to simply fight off or to forestall management of the species that we catch. BWFA’s members recognized the need for practical fisheries management for Atlantic highly-migratory fish stocks whose health is directly linked to the security of our own futures as well as succeeding generations of fishermen. Blue Water Fishermen’s Association was incorporated in Washington, D.C. in February of 1990.

During its first six months, BWFA’s members participated in the hearing and public comment process, resulting in an unprecedented volume of substantive input to the Councils for their review and consideration. Simultaneously, our Directors and members were educating their representatives on Capitol Hill about the issues and their impending demise. American fishermen were willing to do their share to help recover the stock, but did not support being sacrificed for no benefit. Despite the Councils’ acknowledgment that even the complete closure of the entire U.S. Atlantic swordfish fleet could not achieve stock rebuilding for Atlantic swordfish, they voted to take that draconian action and sent the approved plan to the Secretary of Commerce to be implemented into law in October of 1990.

In November 1990, two things occurred that moved resource management of these species toward realistic effective conservation and management. First, the U.S. Congress recognized the need for international management measures and the inequity of unilateral restrictions on American highly-migratory species fishermen. Acting with sound resource principles that combined all highly-migratory species within one jurisdiction, Congress transferred the management authority for all Atlantic highly-migratory species from the Regional Council structure to direct authority under the Secretary of Commerce by amending the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The President signed it into Law on November 28, 1990, effectively rendering the proposed Amendment 1 moot.

Secondly, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) took significant steps to begin managing and conserving Atlantic swordfish by implementing management measures affecting all major and minor harvesters in the Atlantic. ICCAT was more progressive in dealing with swordfish than it had been for other species. Perhaps it was because the fishermen themselves were front and center asking for measures to be taken until the stock was rebuilt.

Today, the North Atlantic swordfish stock is fully rebuilt as a result of effective international actions. American fishermen, working through Blue Water Fishermen’s Association, helped ICCAT initiate and achieve success for Atlantic Swordfish and for Atlantic swordfish fishermen. International management is not easy to achieve; however, it is the only effective and equitable option. It is in the best interest of U.S. fishery managers and fishermen to pursue and achieve international conservation and management for these important and valuable fish stocks.

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