FLORIDA KEYS -- Richard Stanczyk helped pioneer and popularize daytime fishing for swordfish in Florida over the past decade. Now, with swordfish very much on people's minds, the owner of Islamorada's Bud n' Mary's Marina says he's concerned that the sport's growing popularity could cause their numbers to plummet, as in the late 1970s.
"They are definitely going down. There is no doubt about that," Stanczyk told the Free Press last week.
Recreational fishing for swordfish in the Florida Keys has received a burst of publicity over the past month due to two exceedingly large catches, both brought up in daylight. The first fish, weighing 520 pounds, was landed off Islamorada on March 25. Barely a week later, a Marathon-based charter brought in a 683-pound swordfish, the largest ever recorded in the state of Florida.
The catches, while celebrated by many as spectacular, also raised eyebrows, in part because they were both made on electric reel. That assistance meant that the International Game Fish Association didn't put the 683-pound swordfish into the record books for Florida. The largest IGFA-legal Florida swordfish, weighing 612 pounds, was boated using a manual reel in 1978.
"Our organization was founded on sportfishing by man, not by machine," Jack Vitek, IGFA's world record coordinator, said last week. "IGFA would not recognize fish caught on electric reel simply because it removes the sporting aspect away from fishing. It's no longer a man or woman catching a fish."
The use of electric reels wasn't what Stanczyk and friend Vic Gaspeny had in mind in 2003 when they first began hunting for swordfish in the depths of the ocean during the daytime. But then again, the duo might not have foreseen how successful they'd be, and how quickly daytime swordfish fishing would catch on once they went public with their techniques in a 2007 Sport Fishing Magazine article.
Prior to the 1970s, very few anglers went after swordfish in Florida's waters. But by the end of the decade the discovery that the meaty fish could be caught consistently at night a few hundred feet below the surface had changed everything. Anglers hit the Florida Straits in hordes with longlines, quickly depleting the fishery.
By 2000 the problem had gotten bad enough that the National Marine Fisheries Service banned longline fishing off the Florida Coast. The change led to a rebound of Atlantic swordfish populations. In 2010 NOAA's Fisheries Service removed swordfish from its list of species undergoing overfishing.
Back in 2003, with swordfish populations on the rise, Stanczyk and Gaspeny decided to start hunting for them during the day. But they weren't looking for them near the surface, as nighttime anglers do. Instead, they were testing a theory put forth by Venezuelan angler Ruben Jaen, who speculated that in daylight swordfish retreat to the ocean floor, some 1,400 to 1,800 feet below the surface.
Jaen turned out to be correct. Stanczyk and Gaspeny caught a swordfish during their first deepwater hunt in January 2003, Gaspeny wrote in a 2010 article published in the IGFA's World Record Game Fishes almanac.
And it got even better from there. From September 2006 through October 2007, the duo, joined by Stanczyk's brother Scott, Stanczyk's two sons and a few others, caught at least one swordfish on 53 consecutive trips. All of the catches were on a manual reel.
But they weren't just catching a lot of fish, said Stanczyk. They were also catching big fish -- on average twice as big as the swordfish he had caught closer to the surface through the years.
After the 2007 magazine article, anglers around South Florida got in on the act. Today, numerous advertisements for daytime swordfish charters can be found with a simple Google search.
Gaspeny estimates that on a nice summer day there are probably 300 boats on the water from Pompano Beach south, dropping their lines deep for swordfish. Stanczyk says 50 such charters can be found on the waters off the Keys on an average day.
In addition, swordfish are harvested commercially, though commercial fishermen still tend to target the surface using the buoy fishing technique, in which several lines are dropped off a strategically-placed buoy.
Stanczyk himself continues to fish for swordfish. In fact, his Bud n' Mary's website still advertises swordfish charters.
"Daytime fish average around 100 lbs. but we catch plenty over the 200-lb. mark as well. So if you've ever dreamt of catching a big swordfish, you might want to consider giving it a try here at Bud n' Mary's Marina," the site says.
It was a customer of charter guide Kenny Spaulding, who fishes out of Bud n' Mary's, who caught the 520-pound swordfish last month.
Nevertheless, Stanczyk, the pioneer, is worried about the sport's future.
Though populations are still regarded as healthy, both he and Gaspeny say that swordfish are already harder to catch than they were nine years ago when they first started hunting them during the day.
"We're not going to catch them 50 trips in a row anymore," Gaspeny said last week.
Because anglers are catching much bigger fish than they do closer to the surface, the strain on the breeding population could be further amplified.
That's one reason why Stanczyk is setting his sights on electric reels, which make it easier to pull massive fighting fish up from depths that would dwarf the Empire State Building. It's not uncommon for anglers to take two hours to land a swordfish once they have it on the hook.
"Maybe not using electric reels, that would definitely take a lot of strain off the swordfish population," Stanczyk said.
A reluctant advocate for caution, Stanczyk offered up that he might just be jealous because it wasn't he who caught those two huge fish in the past month.
But he added that his goal at the beginning was to develop daytime fishing for swordfish as another viable option in South Florida's sportfishing suite. Now he's concerned the achievement will be short-lived.
"What I'm worried about is that our discovery may ultimately lead to their disappearance again," he said.