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Mystery of the disappearing mahi-mahi divides fishermen

The colorful dolphinfish, or mahi-mahi, is one of the most coveted species for recreational fishermen as well as the commercial vessels. Charter boat captains in Florida and Puerto Rico say they are seeing far fewer and much smaller fish in recent years. But who is to blame isn’t clear, and some point to climate change. (Lea este artículo en español)
Publicado 23 Oct 2022 – 11:33 AM EDT | Actualizado 23 Oct 2022 – 11:36 AM EDT
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Captain Jon Reynolds is better days with a 50-pound Mahi-mahi, known as a "slammer" in fisherman slang. Crédito: Courtesy of Jon Reynolds.

At a recent meeting of federal regulators in the Florida Keys, local fishermen raised the alarm that one of the most popular fish they go after – the dolphinfish or mahi-mahi - is fast disappearing from local waters.

They blame the larger commercial fishing vessels that haul in fish by the thousands, using long lines to catch the migrating schools of mahi-mahi, known as dorado in Spanish.

“It’s progressively getting worse and worse,” said Jon Reynolds, a veteran charter boat captain in Islamorada in the Florida Keys, who says it is hurting the livelihood of many small, family-owned business, as well as damaging the environment of coastal waters that attract thousands of tourists each year.

Charter captains, as well as recreational anglers, say they are seeing fewer and fewer mahi-mahi off the coasts of Florida and Puerto Rico, and the ones they are catching are much smaller than these veteran fishermen have been used to catching for decades.

But industry regulators and the commercial fishing boats, say the plight of the charter boats is more complicated than that. Commercial “long line” fishing is not permitted off the Florida coast and federal regulations allocate the vast majority of the 24.5 million pounds of mahi-mahi allowed annually to the charter boats and their recreational rod-and-reel customers.

While the charter boats have an annual limit of nearly 22 million pounds - 93% of the permitted mahi-mahi catch - the commercial vessels are allocated only 1.7 million pounds, or less than 7% of the annual haul.

While there are thousands of charter boats who take recreational customers out fishing for a day or half day up and down the U.S. east coast, there are only about 50 licensed commercial vessels operating in those waters, according to U.S. fishery regulators working for the Department of Commerce and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Commercial fishermen say don;t blame us for scarcity of Mahi-mahi

“This mystery of the mahi-mahi, it's unknown to me exactly what the issue is and why it is happening. You would probably have to go ask the good Lord above or Mother Nature. But to single out one group who is only allocated seven percent of the total allocation, to me is a falsehood,” said Dewey Hemilright, the owner of a 42-foot North Carolina commercial fishing vessel, the Tar Baby.

Scientists say other factors could play a role such as the impact of climate change and warming seas on the migratory pattern of fish heading north to find cooler water.

The crisis seems to be most impacting the southeast United States, while fishermen further north in North Carolina and New Jersey are reporting healthy catches.

No shortage of mahi-mahi in North Carolina and New Jersey

Florida has more anglers than any other state in the nation and the fishing industry is worth billions of dollars, said Reynolds, supporting tens of thousands of family. The mahi-mahi are one of the biggest attractions.

“They are fun to catch. They are fighters. They jump out of the water and they are very colorful,” said Reynolds, describing why the blue-green fish that can weigh up to almost 90 pounds, is such a popular attraction for fishermen. “The hardest part is finding them,” he added.

It used to be much easier.

Up to seven or eight years ago, it used to be very common to see 30 to 40 pound mahi-mahi during the summer and fall, say Florida charter captains. Now they rarely see fish that size, obliging the boat captains to fish for other species, like swordfish, snapper, wahoo and tuna.

The charter boats have accepted new federal regulations limiting their Mahi-mahi catch from 60 fish per boat to 54. But they say they would like to see greater limits put on the commercial fishermen too.

“We have certainly heard concerns from fishermen, especially in Southeast Florida, about the decline in both the abundance and size of mahi-mahi,” said Andy Strelcheck, the Southeast regional administrator for the fisheries division of NOAA. But he added that concern wasn’t shared throughout the East Coast. “Some areas are actually saying they may be saying more larger fish in those areas. So, it's not a consistent message right now from all the fishermen that we work with,” he told Univision.

The charter fishing boat captains complain that the long line fisherman are permitted to harvest the mahi-mahi using lines as long as 32 miles, with thousands of hooks at a time, which allows them to haul in massive catches in a short period of time.

“Just from a moral standpoint, that we still legally allow that kind of fishing in the condition that our oceans are in, for this to be acceptable by our fisheries management is absolutely disgusting,” said Reynolds.

Regulators say they are studying the data to get a better idea what needs to be done. But they point out that the commercial fishing vessels are already heavily regulated to monitor their catch.

“The United States has a fairly successful track record of managing fisheries sustainably and we are looked at as a world leader in terms of fisheries management,” said Strelcheck. But, whenever a fish species is showing signs of decline, he said regulations can be modified.

“We hear constituents loud and clear, we're looking into the matter and I think management is in a place where we can react and we can make adjustments to the management to help this fishery,” he added.

Commercial fishing is monitored by onboard inspections as well as mounted cameras, and a requirement to submit logbooks of what they bring aboard. Measurements are also taken when they offload their catch at specified landing places for sale to federally permitted seafood dealers.

“There’s lot of checks and balances,” said Strelcheck. Missing logbooks and data can hold up the renewals of fishing permits, he added.

Scientists monitor mahi-mahi migration

The mahi-mahi breed easily and are a fast-growing fish, so if they are in decline the hope is that they can rebound quickly, said Mandy Karnauskas, an ecosystem scientist with NOAA.

Scientists also keep data on their movement, monitoring them as they migrate up and down the east coast within U.S. commercial waters, which extend from three miles to 200 miles offshore.

U.S. officials acknowledge they have little data on what happens to the mahi-mahi outside those waters. Because they migrate over large distances they only spend part of their average lifespan of three to five years in U.S. waters, Karnauskas said. The officials estimate that U.S. fishermen are only responsible for about 50% of the fish that are caught, mostly during the spring and summer as they migrate north from the Caribbean as far as Maine.

“Those unknown areas for dolphinfish in the western Atlantic tend to be in the southern part of the range, in the Caribbean area,” said John Hadley, an economist with the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

While it was “well established” that there was a declining trend for the mahi-mahi in South Florida, “the million dollar question is what is the pinpoint cause of that?” he said.

While it may be that more fish are being caught outside U.S. waters, there may also be an environmental explanation. “There may be some sort of climate change, or environmental change” that is driving the fish to migrate further north, perhaps due to warmer sea temperatures, said Hadley.

Artisanal fishermen struggle to make a living in Puerto Rico

A trench off the coast of Puerto Rico that makes for a very good feeding area for the mahi-mahi. “When long liners are in our water they pretty much decimate our stocks,” said Captain Jesus ‘Milo’ Duran, an artisanal fishermen in Boqueron, a tourist town on Puerto Rico’s west coast known for its seafood restaurants. “They come through this area every year in February and March. It pretty much leaves us empty-handed. It’s a huge blow to our industry,” he added.

Duran has been fishing those waters for two decades in a 23-foot boat, selling part of his catch to local restaurants. He is sometimes joined by his 15-year-old daughter, Galilea, an expert angler herself.

The eye of Hurricane Fiona passed right over Boqueron last month and Duran was 20 days without power, unable to fish. “We’re a family operated business and we’ve had zero income for a month. Mahi-mahi was one of our main revenues,” he said.

The smaller fish are worth less money at the restaurants as they don’t provide the thick fish steak that diners like. Vacuum-packed imported mahi-mahi is taking over the market, he said, selling for as little as $5 a pound. “They buy it for a price we can’t compete with,” he said, saying a good-sized mahi-mahi can sell for $15 a pound.