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Net loss possible in Bahamas

2/27/2010

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A commercial Bahamian purse seine netting operation is attempting to obtain permits to begin operating in the islands of the Bahamas for yellowfin tuna, much to the frustration of conservation groups and sports fishing interests.

"If the Bahamian government authorizes commercial purse seining of tuna it could have a devastating effect," said Ellen Peel, president of The Billfish Foundation. "We are asking the government to consider a moratorium before any permits are issued.

"Purse seine netters are indiscriminate. Such a large scale net vessel (with nets reportedly a mile long) will have bycatch trapped in the nets of not only blue marlin, white marlin, sailfish and spearfish but it will also kill marine mammals such as porpoises and bottle nosed dolphin as well as endangered sea turtles.

"Attempts by commercial operators from Japan, Korean and Taiwan to seine net in the islands have been rejected over the years, but the current marine laws in the Bahamas apparently don't exclude Bahamian operators within its own country like the one on Freeport, Grand Bahama Island, from setting up an operation."

Seines are large nets that hang like a vertical fence with weights at the bottom. The purse seine style of nets employ rings at the bottom in which a rope is fed through. As the boat encircles a school of fish the rope is pulled closing the net, not allowing the targeted fish, trapped billfish or mammals to escape below.

"That negative impact will kill the sportfishing tourism industry so vital to their nation," TBF Chief Scientist Dr. Russell Nelson said. "If they want to catch yellowfin they are going to end up using fish aggregating devices (FADs) which in turn will attract lots of billfish, dolphin, wahoo and other fish that will become bycatch and die."

TBF is asking for the Bahamian government to enact a moratorium so its law makers can have time to look at scientific and socio-economic data.

"Why would a nation that has demonstrated responsible fishery and ocean management for years now take huge steps backwards, steps that could economically and ecologically permanently damage the entire archipelago?," Peel said.

Since its passing in 1994, Florida has banned netting in its coastal waters. Over the years studies have shown the extensive coastal fishery is once again rebounding.

Recent socio-economic studies completed by The Billfish Foundation in countries like Mexico and Costa Rica, document that responsible sportfishing of billfish — primarily catch and release — generates far more economic return to a nation than large commercial vessels that take, kill and move on to others waters while only having to pay a few license and permit fees.

"Once vessels like this are permitted to fish the region," Peel said, "that nation's waters become depleted of many marine fish that are indicators of the health of their ecosystems. Large pelagic fish like billfish and tuna help support a number of jobs and industries throughout the Bahamas. Their presence in the waters is important also for balancing the functions of the ecosystems."

Peel said TBF is sending its economic and scientific data to the Bahamian Prime Minister and other ministers and key officials there in hopes that they see the huge error and halt it before the purse seine vessel can ever drop its first net. She added that she's prepared to go to the Bahamas immediately with scientists and reports to talk with officials about what they are considering.

Already the reaction is growing in the marine community after a TBF news alert was sent Thursday to its comprehensive network of members and supporters including concerned anglers, captains, mates, hotel and marina owners, tackle shops, tournament directors and other ancillary groups.

"We'll see what happens hopefully to resolve this quickly in the coming weeks, if not days," Peel said.