West Coast Fishery Managers Have Historic Opportunity to Dramatically Reduce Bycatch in Swordfish Fleet

Newest study further validates efficacy of deep-set buoy gear

West Coast Fishery Managers Have Historic Opportunity to Dramatically Reduce Bycatch in Swordfish Fleet
Bigeye thresher sharks
Bigeye thresher sharks inadvertently caught off the California coast by deep-set buoy gear almost always survive after being released, according to a study by the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

After more than eight years of research and testing, a method of catching swordfish that largely spares whales, dolphins, turtles, and other marine wildlife could win federal approval this month. The Pacific Fishery Management Council is slated to vote on final authorization of deep-set buoy gear at its meeting in Boise, Idaho, on Sept. 16.

This is potentially great news for all the animals that are injured and killed by large-mesh drift gillnets, currently the primary means of catching swordfish off the coast of Southern California. And the council has ample evidence to support authorization of the method, including a new study from the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research showing that the small number of bigeye thresher sharks inadvertently caught with buoy gear almost always survive after being released. The study was funded in part by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program.

This innovative fishing approach uses a hook-and-buoy system that enables fishermen to drop their hooks as deep as 1,200 feet, where swordfish typically feed during the day. When a bite-indicator buoy is triggered, fishermen can respond within minutes. If the catch is a swordfish or other marketable species, they can land it; if it is another animal, they can release it alive. By contrast, drift gillnets are deployed at night near the surface—where many species congregate—resulting in dramatically higher bycatch of those species.

Buoy gear has undergone more than 8,000 hours of on-the-water testing by scientists and commercial fishermen. That testing showed that the gear results in dramatically lower bycatch of dolphins, sea turtles, and whales. In addition, swordfish caught with buoy gear—because they’re brought to market quickly—often sell for a higher price than those landed in drift gillnets.

From a business and an environmental perspective, buoy gear is clearly a better way to catch swordfish. There is also broad public support for the concept, with 87 percent of California voters saying fishermen should use methods that are less destructive than drift gillnets, according to a poll commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts. To make the shift even easier, California passed legislation last year that provides financial assistance for commercial fishermen who transition from drift gillnets to buoy gear.

Now it’s up to the Pacific Fishery Management Council to take the final step and vote to fully authorize deep-set buoy gear. 

Paul Shively directs Pew’s efforts to protect ocean life and coastal habitats on the U.S. West Coast.

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