Off California’s southern coast, a small fleet of commercial fishing boats hunts for the majestic swordfish by using milelong drift gillnets that form floating walls through the sea. Though the boats number 20 active vessels at most, the fishing technique is known to trap tons of fish and sea mammals such as dolphins.
To date, California is the only state on the West Coast that still allows the commercial swordfish fishery to use drift gillnets, as opposed to other approaches that minimize the unintended capture of fish.
At a Friday meeting in Sacramento, the Pacific Fishery Management Council unanimously voted to begin a process authorizing fishing gear that may make drift gillnet use for the hunting of swordfish a thing of the past in California.
The gear to be authorized is innovative fishing equipment called deep-set buoy gear, which allows swordfish to be taken without the unintended trapping of whales, dolphins and turtles as bycatch.
“This is a positive step toward a sustainable West Coast swordfish fishery,” said Tara Brock, a senior associate with the oceans program of the research group the Pew Charitable Trust.
“The swordfish fishery may be a small one, but the amount of bycatch in that fishery is quite large,” said Brock. “They catch an enormous amount of marine mammals and cetaceans.”
On average, 64 percent of fish caught by gillnets used for swordfish is bycatch. Most of it is sunfish, which is returned to the ocean, but mammal species and turtles don’t survive when they are trapped in the large mesh nets. Of special concern are protected leatherback turtles and whales getting caught in nets.
Unlike drift gillnet fishing, the new technique employs gear that operates much deeper in the ocean, which allows avoidance of large quantities of bycatch.
“The deep-set buoy gear appears to be a promising addition to swordfishing,” said Lyle Enriquez, fishery biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. “It’s an addition to existing gear and a new way to catch swordfish with low impact to non-target species.”
The new buoy technique spares bycatch by employing a main fishing line sunk between 800 and 1,200 feet deep. Swordfish remain active at that depth during the day when fishing is done, but species such as dolphins and endangered leatherback turtles are active higher in the water column.
The state does not issue permits for such deep-set buoy devices.
Proponents of the method claim the buoy approach allows for quicker harvesting of fish and fresher fish brought to market because crews can land their catch within minutes of hooking due to floating signals attached to the main fishing line.
The buoy gear is used at the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research in Oceanside on an experimental basis and has shown that it results in less bycatch, Enriquez said.
Swordfish fishermen welcome the development of the buoy technique, but unanswered questions remain, said Santa Barbara-based commercial swordfish fisherman Gary Burke.
The 69-year-old said he doesn’t believe the buoy approach makes business sense yet. “You will catch one fish a day with the buoy approach, and that’s not economically viable when you have a boat to pay for and slip fees,” he said.
With gillnets, his average catch is three swordfish a day, Burke said. On one recent six-day trip, he caught 40 swordfish.
About turtle bycatch in his net, he said: “I haven’t seen one of those turtles in one of my nets for years.”
You will catch one fish a day with the buoy approach, and that’s not economically viable when you have a boat to pay for and slip fees.
Gary Burke, commercial swordfish fisherman
To date, most gillnet swordfish catches happen in the waters off Southern California, although swordfish are plentiful in Northern California as well. Those fishing waters are closed to swordfish gillnets between mid-August and mid-November to protect the migration of leatherback turtles. Few fishermen risk the winter weather after the waters open to swordfish catches, Burke said.
California’s sport fishermen said they support the adoption of the new fishing method.
“We’ve been long-standing opponents of gillnet use and for the transition to safer tools,” said Marko Mlikotin, spokesman for the California Association of Recreational Fishing. “The bottom line is the gillnets are a destructive tool, and their use has had a profound impact on California’s recreational fishery.”
Mlikotin contends the limitations imposed on sport fishing are a result of commercial fishing. He also said the declines in certain fish species are a result of overfishing and bycatch.
“In California over 800 square miles of the Pacific Ocean are limited or banned for recreational fishing because of commercial fishing practices,” said Mlikotin. “That impacts the communities along the coast that depend on sport fishing.”
The council began the process to authorize deep-set buoy gear, which is a positive step toward a sustainable West Coast swordfish fishery.