Analysis

California Can Have Its Swordfish and Protect the Marine Ecosystem, Too

It's Time to Find a Better Way to Catch Pacific SwordfishIllustration: Ned Drummond

Drift gillnets target swordfish but indiscriminately kill other animals, too, including many species of game fish, sharks, marine mammals, and Pacific leatherback sea turtles.

California has a well-deserved reputation for leading the nation in protecting our natural environment. The Golden State has set the standard for fuel-efficient vehicles, coastal protection, and wildlife conservation.

Governor Jerry Brown is central to California’s conservation story through decades of public service. Today, we’re asking for his leadership in reducing the unnecessary waste of marine mammals, sea turtles, sharks, and other fish that are inadvertently killed by the drift gillnets that target swordfish off the California coast.

Thousands of Californians are making the case to Gov. Brown that iconic and endangered species such as leatherback sea turtles and sperm whales should not be sacrificed in order to catch luxury seafood like swordfish—especially when less wasteful and more environmentally friendly alternatives exist.

California issues the permits for this fishery, but it is managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries service (also known as NOAA Fisheries) and the Pacific Fishery Management Council. Almost a year ago, council members unanimously agreed on the need to reduce bycatch and improve oversight through increased observer coverage of drift gillnet fishing trips. Yet the council stopped short of agreeing to phase out this fundamentally indiscriminate form of fishing.

Gov. Brown and his council appointees should lead the transition toward a more sustainable future. California is the only West Coast state that still authorizes the use of drift gillnets targeting swordfish. Oregon and Washington stopped years ago out of concern over the high degree of bycatch that results from leaving mile-long drift gillnets submerged in the ocean for hours at a time. That’s why the governor’s leadership is essential in advocating for a better way to catch swordfish.

Drift gillnets target swordfish, but the indiscriminate nature of this gear means that 64 percent of what’s caught in these nets is thrown overboard. Although the swordfish fishery is small, with fewer than 20 active boats, it kills more whales, porpoises, and dolphins than all other fisheries on the West Coast and Alaska combined.

Dolphins, whales, sharks, sea turtles, and finfish such as bluefin tuna migrate thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean to congregate in the rich feeding grounds of the California Current marine ecosystem.

We can leave these and other animals unharmed and still have swordfish on our plates. Viable alternatives are available, such as buoy gear and harpoons, that can catch swordfish without killing other marine life. In fact, these gears result in a superior product that fetches a higher price in the market.

It's time to move away from drift gillnets and toward a more responsible way to catch swordfish. And California should lead the way.

Paul Shively directs ocean conservation efforts along the West Coast for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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