Newly Approved Fishing Gear Reduces Ocean Wildlife Entanglements

2 min

If you order fresh swordfish off a menu in California, there’s a good chance it was caught with something called a drift gillnet. But these mile-long mesh nets are also notorious for entangling leatherback sea turtles, grey whales, sharks and porpoises, often leaving them injured or dead.

Studies show that deep-set buoy gear can catch swordfish without entangling marine mammals. Click on the image to make it larger. (The PEW Charitable Trusts)

Environmental groups and state government have been working to ban gillnets for years. In 2018, California passed a law to begin phasing out use of the nets in the state’s swordfishery. Now, the agency that manages California’s fisheries has approved an eco-friendly alternative.

It’s called deep-set buoy gear, and here’s how its works:

Hooks baited with squid are dropped on single lines to depths of around 1,000 feet, where swordfish like to feed. Attached to the line are buoys that float on the surface. When a fish takes the bait, a buoy bobs underwater, telling the fisherman it’s time to reel in the line.

Research conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research shows that around 80 percent of what these lines bring up is swordfish. Over 90 percent is marketable when secondary species like thresher shark and opah are included.

By contrast, studies show that more than half the haul from drift gillnets, on average, are discarded as unwanted bycatch.

“After eight years of study, it is unequivocally a good way to catch swordfish without endangering so many other animals that are iconic to the West Coast,” said Paul Shively, who manages conservation projects for The PEW Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit that helped develop the new gear.

Shively says that because gillnets are set out overnight near the surface of the ocean, they’re prone to ensnare many species that come up to feed. But buoy gear, he says, actively targets swordfish at deeper depths, where they feed during the day.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council voted unanimously in September to authorize deep-set buoy gear for commercial swordfishing off the West Coast.

John Ugoretz, an environmental program manager with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, who represents California for the Pacific Fishery Management Council, says one of the big benefits of buoy gear is that because fishermen actively respond to fish on their lines, bycatch can be released quickly, without harming the animal.

“It’s taking a new approach to catching a popular species and doing so in an environmentally friendly way,” Ugoretz said.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, in a statement, praised the council’s decision.

“California is home to some of the most diverse marine life in the world,” Feinstein said. “But the driftnets used off California kill more dolphins, whales and porpoises than all other fisheries along the West Coast and Alaska combined. The use of this indiscriminate gear is unsustainable and must end.”

In March, Feinstein reintroduced a bill that would ban the use of gillnets in federal waters within five years.

In the past, gillnet permits issued in California were valid for the lifetime of the permit holder. These permits could then be transferred to the next generation of fishermen.

But a California state law signed by Gov. Brown last year made all existing gillnet permits nontransferable. The law also called for the creation of a transition program that would compensate fishermen if they surrender their gear in favor of a viable, environmentally responsible alternative. Once the gillnet transition program is finalized, existing drift gillnet permits will be valid for only four more years.

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Some commercial fishermen question whether deep-set buoy gear is the answer.

Bill Sutton, a 40-year veteran swordfisherman based out of Ventura, has been testing the new gear on an experimental permit.

He says while it’s good at accurately catching swordfish, the volume of fish he catches with buoy gear can’t compare to what he can pull up with gillnets.

“We have to fish every darn day to just basically average one fish a day. So a gillnetter will catch 100 fish in 30 days and we’ll catch 100 fish in 100 days,” Sutton said.

Sutton says the switch to buoy gear could put many of the state’s commercial swordfishermen out of business.

“If you’re going to buy a house, have kids, go to college, this isn’t the fishery,” Sutton said. “I don’t think this gear is ready for prime time.”

He recommends the state take a slower approach and do more testing if it plans to move ahead with the four-year countdown to end drift gillnet fishing in California.

As it is, the change won’t happen overnight.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council’s decision to approve deep-set buoy gear will now be passed on to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency in charge of creating the necessary regulations for its use. Ugoretz says this process could take more than a year.

In the meantime, California's commercial fishermen can apply for experimental permits to start dropping deep-set buoy lines to catch swordfish.

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