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New permit puts billfish recovery at risk
A great marine conservation victory has been put in jeopardy by a highly controversial plan to reintroduce indiscriminate longlines into areas that have been closed to the damaging gear for decades. In spite of the recreational angling community's united opposition, the federal Office of Highly Migratory Species today announced that a fleet of six longliners will be allowed back into the conservation zones off Florida's east coast. Utlizing the federal exempted fishing permit program, a single company based on the east coast of Florida will be allowed to drop thousands of longline hooks inside Florida's East Coast Closed Zone targeting billfish and other species.

The stated purpose of the EFP, "to do research on the effectiveness of closures at meeting current conservation and management goals," is a thinly veiled excuse to take advantage of a conservation zone that has been the engine of billfish recovery in the region. The area was originally closed because too many juvenile swordfish were dying due to longlining off the coast of Florida and the Charleston Bump. As a result, those nursery areas were identified and closed to the United States pelagic longline fleet in 2001. Those areas will now be targeted by some of the most destructive fishing gear in the ocean.

At the heart of the controversy is the federal exempted fishing permit program that is increasingly being exploited by commercial interests to simply circumvent public process and opposition to controversial measures that benefit a certain sector or even select individuals within a certain sector. The gaping loopholes in the exempted fishing permit program that will allow a fleet of longliners into the East Coast Closed Zone must be eliminated.

Fortunately, in our efforts to reform federal fisheries laws, there is language contained in the Modern Fish Act (H.R. 2023 and S. 1520) currently before Congress to add another layer of review and scrutiny to permit applications like this one so that egregious abuses of the program are far less likely to occur, yet still allow reasonable, conservation uses of the program. The revisions will establish specific criteria to evaluate permit applications and formalize an expanded review process that requires greater regional stakeholder input on the merits of each permit application.

Today's decision makes it clear that action must be taken immediately to reform federal fisheries management laws. Click the link below to contact your Congressmen. Encourage them to support the Modern Fish Act and prevent our hard-won conservation gains from being exploited and abused. Ask them to join us in our efforts to keep the Florida's East Coast Closed Zone off limits to damaging commercial gear.
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