California’s swordfish fishery faces uncertain future

A swordfish in California.

After decades of public scrutiny, legal battles, and many regulatory changes, the swordfish fishery in the U.S. state of California is facing a required phase-out of large-mesh drift gillnets by 2027.

Deep-set buoy gear, now being employed under federal exempted fishing permits, is set to become the primary method to harvest swordfish off the California coast, with harpoons continuing as a supplemental fishery.

After years of debate and with plenty of bad blood, there is one thing the fishing industry, fisheries managers, and environmental groups agree on: There will be less bycatch from catching swordfish in California waters.

But unless new technology can be scaled up, there will also be less swordfish landed out of California ports, according to Chugey Sepulveda, the director of the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research. Sepulveda first developed deep-set buoy gear in the Southern California Bight.

“It’s not a replacement fishery for large mesh drift gillnets,” Sepulveda said. “[The buoy gear] was brought online to capitalize [and] augment the existing harpoon fishery, which supports a market that receives a higher price-point for its catch.”

Deep-set buoy gear has been shown to be effective at catching swordfish efficiently with minimal bycatch, yielding a higher market price per pound, according to Sepulveda, but fishermen currently using the gear under federal exempted fishing permits said it was developed for smaller boats and doesn’t yield the volume of fish needed to cover the costs of operating larger vessels. Furthermore, bycatch is still part of the catch for drift gillnets. Fishermen using large mesh drift gillnets earned additional income from retained thresher shark, louver, and other species, that will be lost with deep-set buoy gear.

Deep-set buoy gear consists of a vertical mainline around 150 fathoms in length with a flagpole outfitted with a light or radar reflector at the surface and a heavy sinker to keep the line anchored vertically. Attached to the mainline are typically one to three circle hooks with a light attached to shine below the thermocline at 20 to 70 meters (65 to 230 feet) in California waters. The gear is also designed to be actively tended with strike indicators at the surface to alert fishermen when a fish is on.

Initial results for the deep-set buoy gear trials found that 92.4 percent of all fish landed were the target species, with 98 percent consisting of swordfish or another marketable species, according to NOAA Fisheries reports.

The death knell of drift gillnets came with the passage of the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act, which was tucked into the 4,155-page omnibus spending bill in December 2022. A federal ban was first passed by both chambers of Congress as a standalone bill in 2020 but was subject to the final veto of Donald Trump’s presidency.

The phase-out of large-mesh drift gillnets is exemplative of the uphill public-relations battle many U.S. fisheries face over impacts on protected species like whales, marine mammals, and sea turtles. Environmental groups campaigned against drift gillnets as “walls of death” and created materials with images of drowned California sea lions, sharks, sea turtles, and dolphins. Though the fishery regularly met its federally set goals to reduce bycatch of protected species, it did record two entanglements of humpback whales in the 2020-2021 and 2021-22 seasons, despite just seven permits being fished actively, according to Oceana California Campaign Director Geoff Shester. Oceana was one of several non-governmental organizations that campaigned in favor of the federal phase-out of large-mesh drift gillnets.

During congressional hearings on the issue, NOAA Deputy Administrator Tim Gallaudet said the legislation “raises several concerns.” He said, based on 26 years of observer data, bycatch of protected species was a “rare event” and that NOAA was concerned switching to alternative gear was “not economically viable” and would reduce yields, and he said the fishery had reached its targeted bycatch reductions.

According to observer data, for the 2021-2022 season, 92 marine mammals were snagged during that season, 87 of which were killed, equating to one marine mammal caught in large-mesh drift gillnets for every three swordfish landed. The environmental organization also took issue with the fishery’s low observer rate of 19.5 percent, well below the federal requirement of 100 percent coverage.

“We’re not trying to put fishing communities out of business, we want to see them thrive,” Shester said. “We want to scale up clean fishing technology so more fish can be caught as opposed to scaling down a dirty fishing method. This will be beneficial to everyone in the long run.”

Before the federal ban, the state of California had already acted to dramatically reshape the fishery, with 38 California commercial fishermen retiring their gillnets through a state buy-out plan, with many switching to deep-set buoy gear.

In 2018, the California legislature voted to terminate all drift gillnet permits by January 2024. The bill also established a transition program to help fishermen mitigate transition costs and develop new techniques to efficiently harvest swordfish efficiently with less bycatch. All told, with state funding of USD 2.3 million (EUR 2.09 million) and USD 1 million (EUR 909,000) in additional funds provided by Oceana, the buyout plan removed 50 miles and 54 tons of gillnets from the fishery. Twenty-three fishermen with active permits received USD 110,000 (EUR 100,084) each in compensation, the remaining 15 with inactive permits received USD 10,000 (EUR 9,089) each.

Swordfish were harvested almost exclusively with harpoon in waters off the coast of California until 1980. But the fishery proved to be hit-or-miss, with fishermen only able to harpoon swordfish when they were basking. So fisherman began using large-mesh drift gillnet for a more-predictable catch, at which time the state of California began issuing permits.

High bycatch rates of whales, sea turtles, and other marine mammals led to California voters passing a ballot measure to ban large-mesh drift gillnets in state waters and 1990 and led to the creation of a federal take-reduction team in 1996. In 2001, a Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area was established, closing 213,000 square miles of fishing grounds north of Point Conception, California, from August to November. The fishery fell under federal management in 2004 through the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Highly Migratory Species Plan, but it wasn’t until 2018 NOAA Fisheries began issuing federal permits to state permit holders.

The large-mesh drift gillnets, around a mile in length, were set at around dusk and were hung at 200 feet below the ocean surface for up to 12 to 14 hours. The fishery peaked in 1988 and 1989 at more than 200 active permits collectively completing 10,000 sets annually, according to NOAA Fisheries. But by 2020, just seven large-mesh drift gillnet permits – out of a total of 25 federal permits – remained active.

While the 2018 California law terminates state large-mesh drift gillnet permits by 2024 and requires those accepted the buyout to give back their federal permits, drift gillnetting would have been permitted for the 25 permit-holders in federal waters in absence of the federal ban. The federal legislation also includes grants to the remaining large-drift gillnet permit holders to cover the cost of permits, the forfeiture of existing fishing gear, and the acquisition of alternative fishing gear, according to the U.S. Congressional Budget Office.

“Swordfish should have been the third-biggest producer in California behind squid and Dungeness crabs,” longtime fishery participant Gary Burke, of Santa Barbara, California, told National Fisherman. “As it is now, there are so few boats left, we can’t do much marine mammal harm or ecological harm.”

Burke rejected the state buyout when it was offered.

“I didn’t take the buyout because to me it wasn’t worth it. A hundred grand for my livelihood? With the buoy gear, it’s just not efficient enough to turn a profit,” he said.

After the federal decision, Burke said he wasn’t sure the fight over the fishery’s future was over. Others who took the state buyout said they were either tired of fighting the state and federal government, or said they found other economic opportunities outside the fishery.

Participants in the California buyout program might be in for an unwelcome surprise when the federal government issues its first tranche of up to 50 limited entry permits for deep-set buoy gear in the next year or so. Some recipients of the state buyout recipients believe they will be first in line for federal permits, but they will be second in line to participants in the deep-set buoy gear fishery, and there might not be enough limited entry permits to go around for all interested parties.

Nathan Perez, 38, of Newport Beach, California, previously purchased a large-mesh drift gillnet permit, but found himself running a boat, the 47-foot Bear Flag II, that was set up for deep-set buoy gear and wasn’t powered to haul a heavy drift net.

“I got hired on to run a company boat and I had paid for a permit I’m not going to use for the next 15 years,” Perez said of his reasoning in taking the buyout. “I don’t have anything against gillnet fishing – I enjoyed it and did it for a bunch of years.”

Perez said the highly migratory North Pacific swordfish, while still considered to be above target population levels by NOAA, has not returned to U.S. waters in large numbers in the past few years. But he said he still believes there’s a viable future for deep-set buoy gear for smaller- and medium-sized boats and, at times, he’s even landed more swordfish on some trips than gillnetters.

James Heflin has fished for swordfish out of San Diego, California, since the mid-1960s and participated in the state buyout program, which he called an “evolutionary deal.”

“We addressed the issues, but like so many of us you just get tired of going through the battle,” he said. “There’s promise in deep-set buoy, but that depends on a stable premium market.”

For his vessel, the 68-foot F/V Chula, Heflin said deep-set buoy gear is “not economically profitable” because it’s a larger vessel and operating costs are higher than most. In response, Heflin has begun purchasing swordfish from other deep-set buoy gear operators and marketing it to local restaurants.

“No bycatch … that’s why I love the deep set and the harpoon. The older I get, the more I’m going to do this,” he said. “The California deep-set buoy gear fish is the best swordfish in the world. Period.”

Reporting by Nick Rahaim

Photo courtesy of Nathan Perez


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