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.