Dolphin, the fish that built a thousand boats

Jon Slay, Pensacola, with a true marathon slammer, weighing 58.9 pounds. These are no longer numbers you see too often.

As much as I love catching big dolphins, I was sick of cleaning them up an hour after we got back to the dock, so me and the owner of the boat I was steering, the 35-Cabo Dos Amigos, reached an agreement. We decided that after catching 10 dolphins, we would roll up our dolphin bait and go marlin fishing.

Boy, I miss those days. It was 2008 when I wrote my favorite book, about my favorite fish, Sportsman’s Best: Dolphin Fishing. It was easy writing for me. I was in the middle of a total love affair with a dolphin. We’ve made so many people happy, written in so many to-do lists.

rick ryals dolphin fishing charter
Rick Ryals is all smiles in the cockpit of the Dos Amigos with a cute gaffer dolphin.

You see, blue water fishing enthusiasts are created when someone is invited to join their neighbor on an offshore trip. And the fish most likely to encounter our future boat buyer will be a dolphin. The most inexperienced captain dragging an ordinary feather along a line of weeds, has until recent years almost always succeeded in catching dolphins. I remember pointing out in the book that dolphins are the fish that built a thousand boats.

Oh, how the years have passed quickly. Worse still, where have all the bottlenose dolphins gone? Ever since I wrote the book, I’ve wondered if I’ve just lost my touch. Little did I know that captains from Islamorada to South Carolina were wondering the same thing. We can no longer ignore it. The dolphins are in trouble, and they’re going to need our best efforts if they’re going to start attacking our bait again.

Captain Jon Reynolds has been involved in dolphin fishing his entire life. He has been fishing them recreationally, commercially and as Captain of Drop Back Charters, Islamorada, since 1999. In 2016, he and Captain Ray Rosher, Miami, formed SAFE South Atlantic Fisheries Ecologists . They understood that it was the fishermen on the water who were the most concerned, and perhaps even the most knowledgeable, about what was going on with our fisheries and they felt they had to harness that voice to do something thing.

dolphin landing maps
This decline began a long time ago. Each section represents five-year averages of mahi landings, dating back to 1990. Chart created in 2020 for an issue of Florida Sportsman

They were ahead of their time realizing just how serious the lack of dolphins was getting along Florida’s Atlantic coast. If you take a look at the two founders and their board of directors, names like Brian Reynolds, Joey Spaulding and Benny Spaulding, you’ll quickly realize that no band has ever been formed that has caught so many mahi .

They haven’t published any research, but they do have fishing logs. I’m talking over 200 days a year of knowing the real world and reading the health of our mahi fishery daily. When the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council announced its insulting response to an obvious problem, lowering the recreational boat limit from 60 to 54, SAFE shared our frustration. Former South Atlantic Council member Art Sapp reportedly said, “We have failed miserably! Obviously there is a problem with the dolphins and we need to reduce the catch limits for the vessels. Anglers have been begging the council to do something for years, and we haven’t.

florida keys dolphin fishing marathon
Young fisherman based in Miami, Carson Aguila (@carson_aguila1), 15 years old, with a dolphin captured off Marathon.

“The stock is crashing,” exclaimed Reynolds. “Our organization and countless other anglers have been working on the process for over 5 years now. It is clear that the council did not have the recreational angler in mind with the decisions they made.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of seeing ridiculous decisions coming out of the pro-trade South Atlantic Council. I’ve seen red snapper take over every bottom fishing spot I’ve ever had, to the point of catching enough bass, or vermilion snapper, for an impossible dinner.

Hence the reason for the Save The Mahi campaign, which reminds me of an earlier effort, from an earlier time, when fishermen amended the state constitution (1995) via the Save Our Sealife Amendment, (The Net Ban) prohibiting gillnets and entanglements. over 500 square feet in state waters. There were hundreds of red-hat fishermen bussing to the state capitol, which at the time was, some say, the largest number of people to show up for the governor and the cabinet make a decision.

Where are the buses full of red hat fishermen today?

There couldn’t be a more important fishery for the deep sea recreational angler. Mahi is quite possibly the gateway drug for all ocean addicted offshore captains. Without mahi, are the days of offshore trolling captains also numbered?

recreational and commercial catch charts of dolphins, aka mahi
A clear trend is emerging, and it’s not good for one of the world’s most valuable fisheries. Recreational landings above, commercial below.

How could these catch numbers, from NOAA websites, not get more attention? How are we not better represented? How could such a small number of commercial fishermen in North Carolina have such an impact? All legitimate questions that need answers.

Blair Wickstrom, publisher of Florida Sportsman magazine, acknowledged that the fishermen had not sufficiently explained their case to council members. But, as in most cases with these meetings, the recreational fisherman cannot take time off work to testify in person. But, Wickstrom said, “We can’t always attend the meetings, but many fishermen have made their comments public via the Council’s website regarding Amendment 10, but they have been virtually ignored.”

florida keys dolphin fishing marathon
Alex Vandegrift (@alex_vand8) with a South Florida cow.

Wickstrom went on to say that it will be much harder to ignore thousands of people all calling for tougher limits. Limit yourself to save the fishery.

“Let us publicly demand that meaningful action be taken immediately to save our mahi fishery,” Wickstrom said. “We started the petition to let NOAA know again that we will no longer sit idly by when it comes to protecting and rebuilding our mahi fishery. The Save the Mahi petition has been up for two days and a few thousand have already signed it.

If not, go to and sign it today.

The Save The Mahi petition asks the Council to:

  • Reduce the boat limit for mahi from a proposed 54 fish to 30 fish.
  • Create a maximum displacement limit of 2,000 lbs for licensed commercial vessels.
  • Maintain the current limit of 10 fish per angler.
  • Create a minimum size of 20 inches for areas that don’t already have it.

NOAA Fisheries is reviewing Amendment 10 and the board is considering other possible actions. It’s our time, but time is running out.

We all need to be part of the solution. We understand that dolphins are highly migratory and don’t spend all their time in US waters, and foreign longliners no doubt take a chunk of our stock. But, we have to start here, and start now.

Let’s honestly examine the decline in recreational catches and commercial landings. Let’s look at increasing the effort to catch these fish. We have more anglers today than ever before. What impact does this have on fish stocks? We need to know.

Unless we do something now, with dolphin landings expected to be even lower in 2021, we could be looking at a dolphin/mahi fishery collapse in just a few years. We have to dive into the falling numbers. We need an updated stock assessment of dolphinfish.

We can fix this, we can save the fishery, but getting a pro-commercial NOAA to act is never easy, and if we want to fish mahi again, we can’t just sign a petition. We MUST let our elected legislators hear about us. Make phone calls, post on social media. We need to get involved now. Mahi is growing extraordinarily fast, the 18 inch fish we save today will have one of our future offshore captains blundering it like a 30 pounder next year.

It’s time to act. Please sign the Save the Mahi petition:

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