Feature: Proposed Measures for Dolphin and Wahoo Highlight Diversity of Fisheries Along the Atlantic Coast

Managing two popular offshore fish species along the entire Atlantic coast can be a challenge under the best of circumstances. Add an international component, lack of stock assessments, and the cascading effects of new catch level recommendations mixed with differing perceptions on the condition of the fisheries, and the challenge increases. Such is the case for Dolphin and Wahoo. Both are managed in federal waters by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council from Maine to Key West, in collaboration with the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and New England Fishery Management Council. The two highly migratory species are often targeted in the U.S. by recreational fishermen and are prized by charter captains and private anglers alike for their colorful display as a fighting fish and for their delicious flavor.

In April 2020, the South Atlantic Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee provided new Acceptable Biological Catch (ABC) recommendations for both Dolphin and Wahoo. The updates were primarily prompted by revisions to recreational data collected through the Marine Recreational Information Program or MRIP, a partnership between state marine resource agencies and NOAA Fisheries. Changes to the program’s effort survey have resulted in revised recreational landings estimates that are being incorporated into catch level recommendations, not only for Dolphin and Wahoo, but several other species managed by the Council.

Because the two fisheries are primarily recreational, with 90% of the annual catch limit for Dolphin and 96.07% for Wahoo currently allocated to the recreational sector, the recreational landings estimates from MRIP are especially important for management. Stock assessments are unavailable for Dolphin or Wahoo due in part to the migratory nature of each species but also due to a lack of reliable data on the stocks of each species. In the western Atlantic, they are found from Nova Scotia to Brazil, including Bermuda, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico. Dr. Wessley Merten with the Dolphinfish Research Program has provided the Council with presentations on tagging research demonstrating the migratory nature of Dolphin. In this presentation, Dr. Merten noted the largely unreported or under reported commercial landings from other countries. Learn more at: https://dolphintagging.com.

Dolphin Wahoo Amendment 10

Thomas McDonald of Maryland provided this this image as part of his online public comment.

New catch level recommendations require the Council to modify current annual catch limits (the number or pounds of fish that can be harvested in any given year) and adjust allocations between recreational and commercial sectors. For Dolphin and Wahoo these measures are being addressed through Amendment 10 to the Dolphin Wahoo Fishery Management Plan. The amendment would also modify recreational accountability measures to help ensure that annual catch limits are not exceeded. These temporary measures may include in-season reductions in bag limits, vessel limits, or shortening of a season the following year if the catch limit is exceeded. In developing the amendment, the Council has also included proposed actions in response to public input on management changes needed in the fishery. There are currently a total of 13 actions in the amendment.

The Council recently held a series of public hearings via webinar where staff provided a complete overview of the amendment and the Council’s preferred alternatives. A copy of the presentation, video, and interactive story map is available at: https://safmc.net/safmc-meetings/public-hearings-scoping-meetings/.  Let’s take a closer look at some of the proposed measures and concerns expressed by fishermen.

Public Input - Concerns, Perceptions and Observations

With more than 142 online written comments received on Dolphin Wahoo Amendment 10 and 23 public comments received during three public hearings, fishermen and others have emphasized the importance of the Dolphin and Wahoo fisheries – and distinct differences in opinions on what regulatory measures are needed.

Proposed Reductions in Vessel and Bag Limits

Fishermen, particularly those in South Florida and the Florida Keys, have expressed concerns about the Dolphin fishery for the past few years, noting reductions in both the number and sizes of fish being captured. Fishermen have asked the Council to consider reductions to recreational harvest and take a look at other factors that may be causing these changes, including the commercial longline fishery.

Charter captains emphasized the importance of Dolphin to businesses in the Florida Keys. Photo credit: Drop Back Fishing Charters

“Over the past decade, and especially the past five years, pressure on the Dolphin fishery has steadily increased,” said Captain Jon Reynolds, owner of Drop Back Fishing Charters in Islamorada, Florida and member of the Council’s Dolphin Wahoo Advisory Panel. “While other species with strong conservation measures in place show signs of rebound, Dolphin continue to decline,” stated Captain Reynolds during a public comment session. He and several other captains from the Florida Keys emphasized the importance of Dolphin to the charter industry and urged the Council to modify Dolphin allocations, reduce vessel limits, and implement a strict commercial trip limit and gear restrictions.

Ryan Buel, a recreational fisherman from Palm City, Florida offered similar observations, writing, “I’ve seen a huge decline in the big fish in the area. I’ve been fishing here for 25 years and feel the size limit needs to be raised to at least 30 inches and the bag limit dropped from 10 to 5 per person,” said Buel. He noted social media postings with large numbers of small Dolphin. “If you don’t need a gaff to land it, it’s not big enough to keep!”

Further north, especially along the coast of North Carolina, the story is a bit different. Many charter captains along the Carolina coasts noted the importance of the 60-fish vessel limit for Dolphin and the two Wahoo per person/day bag limit during public input. The Council received similar recommendations from its Dolphin Wahoo Advisory Panel.

Amendment 10 includes an action to reduce the recreational vessel limit for Dolphin from the current 60 fish per vessel.  Proposed reductions range from 54 fish to 30 fish per vessel, excluding headboats. To address regional concerns, the amendment includes options to apply any reductions in vessel limits for Dolphin along the entire Atlantic, to Florida only, or to South Carolina, Georgia and Florida only. Because catch per trip tends to be lower in Florida, vessel limit reductions for Dolphin that apply to the entire Atlantic provide notably larger harvest reductions than a similar limit applied just in Florida. For example, a 30 fish vessel limit would reduce harvest by 12.7% if applied to the entire Atlantic coast, but only reduce harvest by 0.12% if applied to for Florida only.

Wahoo captured off of Morehead City, North Carolina. Photo credit: Ramblin' Man Charters

“This is a potential industry killer for the charter boats along the North Carolina coast,” said Captain Nick Chiotakis with Rambling Man Sportfishing in Morehead City, North Carolina. In his written comments, Captain Chiotakis noted the differences between the North Carolina and South Florida Dolphin and Wahoo fisheries, including weather, seasons, and run times to reach fishing grounds 50 miles or further offshore compared to South Florida, where similar fishing opportunities exist within 10 miles of shore. “We have to charge accordingly for the distances we have to go and we have to be able to produce a good amount of fish for our customers. In my opinion the real problem is in South and Central America fisheries.”

Thomas McDonald, a private recreational fisherman fishing out of Ocean City, Maryland shared his perspective, “We fish the Mid-Atlantic region from Baltimore Canyon to Washington Canyon and release fish [voluntarily] under 20-24 inches. I would like to see the current 10 per person limit stay the same, as dolphin/mahi catches can normally save the day offshore and grow at such a prolific rate.”

Photo credit: Tyler Cox

Members of the Dolphin Wahoo Advisory Panel have noted a shift to targeting Wahoo due to a decline in the Yellowfin Tuna fishery in recent years. For the past 3 out of 5 years, Wahoo landings have exceeded what will be the new recreational sector annual catch limit. To help avoid triggering accountability measures that could shorten the Wahoo season from its currently open year-round status, Amendment 10 includes an action to reduce the current bag limit of Wahoo from 2 fish to 1 fish per person/day, reducing landings by an estimated 27.1%.  Another action would establish a vessel limit for Wahoo, with options ranging from 2 to 8 Wahoo per vessel, reducing landings ranging from approximately 30% to 2% respectively.

“Dolphin and especially Wahoo are the life blood of the charter industry in southern North Carolina. A proposed limit cut would drastically reduce business for the charter fleet,” wrote Captain Cameron Guthrie with Marlin Fever Sportfishing in Morehead City, North Carolina. “Our fall Wahoo fishing not only helps sustain our business but adds a big boost to our local economy after the summer tourist season has ended.”

Additional Recommendations

Currently, there is a 20-inch fork length minimum size limit in place for Dolphin off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and the east coast of Florida. There was support for applying a minimum size limit along the entire Atlantic coast and increasing the minimum size limit, measures that are not currently being considered in Amendment 10.

As Director of the Dolphin Research Program, Dr. Wessley Merten also recommended expanding the Dolphin Wahoo Fishery Management Plan to include the Gulf of Mexico, requiring circle hooks, and establishing an International Dolphinfish Working Group. Expanding the Fishery Management Plan to include the Gulf of Mexico and actively working with other nations to better manage Dolphin was also encouraged by the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, among other recommendations.

Some charter captains also encouraged the Council to wait before taking action in order to consider data collected through the new Southeast For-Hire Electronic Reporting Program. Implemented on January 4, 2021, the program requires federally permitted for-hire captains to submit trip-level reports on a weekly basis.

A complete list of all online comments for Dolphin Wahoo Amendment 10 is available from the Council’s website at: https://safmc.wufoo.com/reports/dolphin-wahoo-amendment-10-comments/

The Council will consider public comments as it continues working on Dolphin Wahoo Amendment 10 during its March 1-5, 2021 meeting that will be held via webinar. The Council is scheduled to approve the amendment for submission to the Secretary of Commerce during its June 2021 meeting. The Council is also currently scheduled to begin an amendment to address the longline fishery in September of this year.

Management Measures Proposed in Amendment 10 to the Dolphin Wahoo FMP

  • Update the Acceptable Biological Catch and revise Annual Catch Limits for Dolphin and Wahoo largely based on updated recreational landings estimates (from MRIP).
  • Modify allocations between the recreational and commercial sectors for both species based on the new ABC and ACL values.
  • Revise recreational Accountability Measures to allow for temporary reductions in bag limits, vessel limits, and/or the season should the sector ACL be projected to be met for Dolphin and temporarily reduce the bag limit, reduce the length of the season, or implement a vessel limit for Wahoo to prevent the sector ACL from being exceeded (post season).
  • Remove the Operator Card requirement for for-hire and commercial federal Dolphin Wahoo permit holders.
  • Allow possession of limited quantities of Dolphin or Wahoo onboard commercial vessels with trap, pot, or buoy gear onboard.
  • Reduce the recreational vessel limit for Dolphin.
    • Alternatives range from 30 to 54 fish per vessel with additional alternatives to have the reductions apply only off the east coast of Florida, off the coasts of NC, SC and GA, or along the entire Atlantic coast.
  • Reduce the bag limit for Wahoo to 1 fish per person and implement vessel limits for Wahoo ranging from 2 to 8 fish per vessel.
  • Allow filleting of Dolphin at sea north of the NC/VA line onboard for-hire vessels. This last action comes at the request of the Mid-Atlantic Council and for-hire captains in the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions. Remember that the Dolphin Wahoo Fishery Management Plan applies to federal waters along the entire Atlantic coast.

 Summary of regulations for Dolphin and Wahoo in federal waters