Ever since California approved the use of drift gillnets to catch swordfish in the early 1980s, the fishery has been tangled in controversy because of the damage this gear causes ocean ecosystems.
No wonder: Submerging nets as long as 6,000 feet and leaving them overnight inevitably results in catching lots of ocean wildlife besides swordfish. As I’ve said in news interviews over the past few years, our appetite for swordfish wanes when we learn that this relatively small fishery kills more dolphins, whales, and porpoises than all other fisheries on the West Coast and Alaska combined. But until West Coast fishery managers approve a better way to catch swordfish, drift gillnets and harpoons are the only games in town.
That’s why The Pew Charitable Trusts and thousands of concerned people are encouraging the Pacific Fishery Management Council to authorize deep-set buoy gear as a better way to catch swordfish while protecting the rest of the marine ecosystem.
But is this alternative economically viable? A new analysis by Cap Log Group, which was commissioned by Pew, built a model using expected costs, revenue, and catch rates. The analysis found that deep-set buoy gear is indeed viable.
Specifically, Cap Log found that using this gear to catch swordfish on the West Coast:
- Is profitable for fishermen. Based on the historic costs of fishing and the average performance of four experimental vessels in 2015, fishing with buoy gear could generate profit margins of 20 percent and higher for fishermen.
- Catches a comparable volume of swordfish. If the average catch from buoy gear trials was applied to just 15 boats operating in an authorized fishery, those boats would catch nearly 90 metric tons of swordfish—exceeding the volume of swordfish caught by 18 drift gillnet vessels in 2015.
- Minimizes waste. Fishermen using buoy gear were able to keep and sell over 90 percent of their catch. In comparison, drift gillnet fishermen keep an average of 36 percent of what they catch, with the rest thrown overboard. These discards are referred to as bycatch and are a significant environmental cost of using this indiscriminate fishing gear.
- Offers stability for fishermen. Concern about the high rate of bycatch, including marine mammals, in drift gillnets targeting swordfish prompted the Pacific Fishery Management Council to impose limits to protect nine species of imperiled sea turtles and marine mammals starting in the 2016 fishing season. Because buoy gear was specifically designed to catch swordfish, it greatly reduces the risk of catching other species and thus could help avert a shutdown of the drift gillnet fishery for reaching those limits.
- Brings fishermen a better price. With deep-set buoy gear, each fish is landed and put on ice within minutes of being caught rather than being left in a drift gillnet for hours. Further, buoy gear trips are generally shorter than gillnet trips, thus the buoy gear-caught fish are fresher when they reach consumers. Consumers will pay a premium price for the higher-quality product that results from buoy gear fishing. A similar market response occurs with harpoon-caught swordfish, which historically earn an average of $8 a pound for fishermen—up to twice as much as the average price for swordfish caught by drift gillnets.
In short, deep-set buoy gear offers a profitable opportunity for fishermen; avoids catching marine mammals, turtles, and nontarget fish species; and allows fishermen to supply a high-quality, local product to the West Coast market. Researchers are already developing the next generation of buoy gear systems, dubbed linked buoy gear, which has the potential to further increase catch while still maintaining a low rate of bycatch.
During its meeting June 21-28 in Tacoma, Washington, the Pacific Fishery Management Council should provide clear guidance to its management team on developing a range of alternatives so that deep-set buoy gear can be authorized in time for the 2017 fishing season.
Seafood lovers shouldn’t have to choose between enjoying the taste of locally caught swordfish and protecting the marine environment. This new economic analysis shows they don’t have to.
Paul Shively directs West Coast marine conservation efforts for The Pew Charitable Trusts.