Eco­nomics and by­catch just don’t make sense


In 2016, I wrote a col­umn re­gard­ing the ar­chaic sword­fish drift-gill­net fish­ery in Cal­i­for­nia. With just roughly 20 ves­sels, this fish­ery kills more dol­phins, por­poises and whales than all other fish­eries on the U.S. West Coast and Alaska com­bined, in ad­di­tion to killing mar­lin, bluefin tuna and other game fish that recre­ational an­glers like to pur­sue.

For­tu­nately, drift gill nets have been go­ing the way of the di­nosaur for some time now. In the case of Cal­i­for­nia, this is an un­for­tu­nate sit­u­a­tion in that you have a com­mer­cial fish­ery for a species that is cur­rently well-man­aged (sword­fish is nei­ther over­fished nor ex­pe­ri­enc­ing over­fish­ing), but the gear be­ing used to catch the fish is ex­ces­sively dirty, mean­ing that it in­curs high lev­els of by­catch. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a bet­ter al­ter­na­tive to drift gill nets for the West Coast sword­fish fish­ery, and there is data to back it up.

Since that last col­umn about gill nets, the IGFA, Wild Oceans, the Amer­i­can Sport­fish­ing As­so­ci­a­tion, the Coastal Con­ser­va­tion As­so­ci­a­tion of Cal­i­for­nia and en­vi­ron­men­tal groups such as Pew Char­i­ta­ble Trusts have been work­ing to get this gear phased out and give com­mer­cial fish­er­men an al­ter­na­tive way to har­vest sword­fish in the form of deep-set buoy gear. Truth is, how­ever, the go­ing has been slow, and the Pa­cific Fish­ery Man­age­ment Coun­cil has been ret­i­cent to au­tho­rize al­ter­na­tive gear and phase out drift gill nets. How­ever, as I write this, sev­eral new de­vel­op­ments have oc­curred that might help us turn the tide on mak­ing gill nets a thing of the past.

The first of which is a re­port ti­tled “A Re­view of the Cal­i­for­nia Drift Gill­net Fish­ery,” com­mis­sioned by the Amer­i­can Sport­fish­ing As­so­ci­a­tion. This re­view pro­vides a much-needed look at the eco­nomic char­ac­ter­is­tics and trends as­so­ci­ated with the drift-gill-net (DGN) fish­ery and com­pares these trends and eco­nomic char­ac­ter­is­tics to other meth­ods fre­quently used to har­vest sword­fish. Here are some of the take­home points from this study.

First, par­tic­i­pa­tion in the DGN fish­ery has de­clined sig­nif­i­cantly over time, with now only roughly 26 per­cent of U.S. Pa­cific sword­fish landed by DGN. Rev­enue from DGN-landed sword­fish has also de­clined pre­cip­i­tously, with 2017 land­ings be­ing only 8 per­cent

of what they were in 1990. But, the by­catch is still as bad, with an av­er­age dis­card rate of 64 per­cent over a 10-year pe­riod. Be­tween 1990 and 2013, by­catch from this fish­ery is es­ti­mated at 4,110 dol­phins, 2,138 seals and sea lions, 500 whales, and 306 sea tur­tles.

The good news is that ex­empted fish­ing per­mits test­ing deep-set buoy gear have yielded far bet­ter re­sults, with a dis­card rate of only 2 per­cent, and the eco­nomics are just as promis­ing. Sword­fish caught us­ing deep-set buoy gear fetch, on av­er­age, $6.65 per pound com­pared to $3.37 per pound for sword­fish landed in the DGN fish­ery. Buoy-gear-caught swords get nearly dou­ble the price be­cause the gear is ac­tively tended, which al­lows fish­er­men to quickly catch and ice fish, re­sult­ing in a higher-qual­ity prod­uct. This means that if all sword­fish cur­rently har­vested with DGNs were in­stead har­vested by deepset buoy gear, the Cal­i­for­nia sword­fish fish­ery’s eco­nomic con­tri­bu­tion would in­crease by as much as 19 per­cent and pro­vide 42 ad­di­tional jobs and $341,000 in tax rev­enues.

The other ma­jor de­vel­op­ment has been the in­tro­duc­tion of both state and fed­eral bills aimed at phas­ing out the DGN fish­ery. State Bill 1017 has al­ready passed in the Cal­i­for­nia State Se­nate. On the fed­eral side, the Drift­net Mod­ern­iza­tion and By­catch Re­duc­tion Act (S.2773) has been in­tro­duced in the Se­nate, and there is also a House com­pan­ion bill (H.R.5638).

A lot can hap­pen by the time you re­ceive this is­sue of Mar­lin, and hope­fully, things will be fur­ther along in the bat­tle to re­move this very de­struc­tive, and cer­tainly out­dated, fish­ing gear from the Cal­i­for­nia coast.

Un­for­tu­nately, sea tur­tles are just one species whose en­counter with drift gill nets most of­ten ends trag­i­cally.

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