Catching Swordfish Without Harming Other Marine Life Off The West Coast

Pacific council approval of deep-set buoy gear would lessen use of gillnets

Use Deep-Set Buoy Gear to Catch Swordfish
Catching swordfish

This blog post was updated in July 2017 to correct the text in the web version of the infographic.

A growing number of Americans care about the way their seafood is caught, and swordfish is no exception. That care sometimes turns to alarm when people learn that a significant amount of the marine wildlife caught by drift gillnets in the swordfish fishery off the California coast is discarded—usually dead or seriously injured. The victims of this indiscriminate fishing method include whales and iconic marine mammals, sea turtles, and recreationally important species such as marlin. That may be why 87 percent of Californians support a transition away from this method of catching swordfish.

That’s something fishery managers could do right now, because there is a better, less wasteful way to catch swordfish: deep-set buoy gear. And when the Pacific Fishery Management Council meets next week, it can move this gear one step closer to authorization.   

Deep-Set Buoy Gear Offers a Better Way to Catch Swordfish

Innovative fishing gear minimizes injury and death for whales, sea turtles, and other ocean life

  1. Minimal bycatch Deep-set buoy gear is used during the day, when swordfish feed in deep, colder water, which allows fishermen to more accurately target swordfish and avoid harming sensitive species found in warmer water near the surface.
  2. Strike detection When a fish bites, a white buoy floats to the surface or a yellow buoy submerges, alerting the fishermen that they have a strike.
  3. Active tending Fishermen stay close to their buoys at all times and are able to quickly retrieve marketable fish and release other species.
  4. Higher prices Unlike swordfish caught with long lines or drift gillnets, buoy-caught fish are landed immediately and delivered to market sooner, yielding a better product that demands a higher price.
  5. Additional benefits Deep-set buoy gear allows fishermen to catch other marketable species, such as opah, that also are found in deep, colder water.

Download the full infographic. (PDF)

Unlike drift gillnets, which are used at night when many species congregate near the ocean surface, buoy gear is used during the day and targets swordfish at depths where they are active but other species largely are not. It’s also worth noting that deep-set buoy gear is actively tended by fishermen, who immediately release the occasional unintentional catch while it is still alive. And swordfish caught with buoy gear are quickly brought on board and put on ice, giving fishermen a better product that demands a higher price.

Six years of research and fishing trials with deep-set buoy gear have surprised even its critics. The equipment has proved effective for catching swordfish with minimal bycatch of or injury to whales, sea turtles, and other nontarget ocean life. The method, which has earned the support of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, is being met with diminishing skepticism among commercial fisherman as they see how well deep-set buoy gear works.

There is nothing to gain by delaying the authorization of this promising new method of catching swordfish on the West Coast. The research has been done. The results are in. Join us in urging the PFMC to take action toward approval of deep-set buoy gear.

Paul Shively directs Pacific Ocean conservation campaigns for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Pacific Swordfish
Issue Brief

A Better Way to Catch Swordfish

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Issue Brief

Swordfish caught off the coast of California is a prized seafood delicacy. Sadly, the predominant method of catching this abundant fish, called drift gillnetting, kills many species of marine mammals, fish, sharks, and turtles the fishermen never intended to catch. We can do better. It’s time to shift to alternatives – such as deep-set buoy gear – that enable fishermen to catch swordfish while leaving other marine life in the water where it belongs.


What Is Bycatch?

A cartoon crash course

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"Bycatch" refers to all the fish and other marine creatures incidentally caught or killed by fishing gear. In commercial fishing, this happens on a huge scale: Nets and fishing lines often stretch for miles, indiscriminately snaring all manner of life—including whales, porpoises, sea turtles, and even birds.


There's a Better Way than Drift Gillnets

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West Coast residents take pride in managing natural resources sustainably. However, many would be surprised to learn that off the California coast, thousands of animals are unnecessarily entangled and killed by an indiscriminate form of fishing gear targeting swordfish and thresher sharks.