For anyone with knowledge of the ocean environment and the behavior of marine life, it’s easy to imagine what happens if a fishing fleet deploys lines up to 60 miles long with thousands of baited hooks: All manner of creatures take the bait, including nontarget species, many of which might be threatened or endangered. Off the West Coast, this bycatch almost certainly would include endangered leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles and large numbers of black-footed albatrosses and other seabirds—common casualties in other areas where longline fishing is allowed.
Yet despite the proven inefficiency and destructiveness of longline fishing, the Pacific Fishery Management Council took the first step last fall in approving the use of shallow-set longlines by West Coast-based vessels to target swordfish on the high seas. Authorization of this gear, in addition to threatening vulnerable marine species, would conflict with efforts to move the West Coast swordfish fleet to less harmful fishing methods, such as deep-set buoy gear.
Sport fishermen, scientists, and conservationists have successfully fought the introduction of longlines on the West Coast for decades. The devastating consequences of deploying this gear are well-documented. For example, longlines in Hawaii caught an average of 268 black-footed albatrosses a year between 2010 and 2016. These endangered birds feed off the West Coast, and allowing fishermen to deploy longlines there could push the albatross closer to extinction. Loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles also are frequently hooked by longlines.
Deep-set longline tests that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conducted in West Coast waters from 2011 through 2013 also showed the threat that the gear poses. During those trials, longlines hooked 41 blue sharks for every swordfish. In addition, longline fishing boats often use hundreds of disposable plastic lights to illuminate their gear. These lights are discarded after just one use, exacerbating the growing problem of plastic pollution in the ocean and highlighting the wasteful nature of this fishing method.
The proposal to allow longlines comes as California works to transition the swordfish fleet away from another wasteful gear—drift gillnets. Authorizing longlines would simply replace one problem with another equally harmful one. Join The Pew Charitable Trusts in telling the Pacific Fishery Management Council to not take the bait when it comes to allowing longline fishing for swordfish.
Paul Shively directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work on ocean conservation in the Pacific.