Fish lost at sea: the effect of soak time on pelagic longline catches


Ward, Peter, Ransom A. Myers, and Wade Blanchard
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Our analyses of observer records reveal that abundance estimates are strongly influenced by the timing of longline operations in relation to dawn and dusk and soak time— the amount of time that baited hooks are available in the water. Catch data will underestimate the total mortality of several species because hooked animals are “lost at sea.” They fall off, are removed, or escape from the hook before the longline is retrieved. For example, longline segments with soak times of 20 hours were retrieved with fewer skipjack tuna and seabirds than segments with soak times of 5 hours. The mortality of some seabird species is up to 45% higher than previously estimated. The effects of soak time and timing vary considerably between species. Soak time and exposure to dusk periods have strong positive effects on the catch rates of many species. In particular, the catch rates of most shark and billfish species increase with soak time. At the end of longline retrieval, for example, expected catch rates for broadbill swordfish are four times those at the beginning of retrieval. Survival of the animal while it is hooked on the longline appears to be an important factor determining whether it is eventually brought on board the vessel. Catch rates of species that survive being hooked (e.g. blue shark) increase with soak time. In contrast, skipjack tuna and seabirds are usually dead at the time of retrieval. Their catch rates decline with time, perhaps because scavengers can easily remove hooked animals that are dead. The results of our study have important implications for fishery management and assessments that rely on longline catch data. A reduction in soak time since longlining commenced in the 1950s has introduced a systematic bias in estimates of mortality levels and abundance. The abundance of species like seabirds has been over-estimated in recent years. Simple modifications to procedures for data collection, such as recording the number of hooks retrieved without baits, would greatly improve mortality estimates.