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Scott Aalbers (foreground) and Chugey Sepulveda, scientists with the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research (PIER) in Oceanside, tag and release a swordfish while conducting research on swordfish movements that was crucial to their development of sustainable fishing gear. Photo by Ralph Pace
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After the driftnet ban, swordfish fishery faces sustainability & market pressures  

REGION — With the scrawl of Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature and the unanimous backing of both the California State Senate and Assembly, California has officially banned the controversial drift gillnets used to catch swordfish.

Senate Bill 1017, signed into law on Sept. 27, will phase out driftnet fishing over a four-year period that includes both buyouts and incentives for commercial fishermen to revert to gear and practices that result in less bycatch — the dolphins, sea turtles, whales and other species that get entrapped in the nets and sometimes killed while fishing for swordfish and thresher sharks.

Ashley Blacow, Pacific policy and communications manager for Oceana, wrote in a statement, “Ocean waters off California are some of the most productive and ecologically diverse in the world … . Pulling large drift gillnets out of the water for good while transitioning to cleaner gear means countless marine animals will continue to thrive off the California coast and Californians will have access to sustainably, locally caught swordfish.”

There are 20 commercial driftnet boats still operating in the state — a marked decrease from 129 boats in 1994, according to reporting by The Mercury News. The fishing occurs mostly between San Diego and Big Sur. The bill’s buyout program will compensate fishermen $10,000 for their state drift gillnet permit and an additional $100,000 for surrendering their nets.

California is the last state in the nation to allow such drift gillnets.

While the impending ban will probably be looked at as “a defining moment,” according to Geoff Shester, Ph.D., California campaign director and senior scientist at Oceana, “there are still many battles to go.”

This Risso’s dolphin drowned in a swordfish drift gillnet, a fishing practice that will be banned in California over a four-year phased period. The image came from a Freedom of Information Act request from Oceana to NOAA a few years ago. Photo Credit NOAA

Shester pointed to the renewed push from fishermen to make pelagic longline fishing legal again in California. That fishing practice uses hundreds, and sometimes more than 1,000, baited hooks that hang near the water’s surface to catch species like swordfish and tuna. Like driftnets, longline fishing results in significant amounts of bycatch.

“Why take the approach of pick your poison when you don’t have to choose poison?” Shester asked. Instead of indiscriminate fishing practices with high levels of bycatch, Shester hopes fishermen, with the help of government policies and environmental research, will adopt sustainable practices like deep-set buoy gear.

A local scientist, Chugey Sepulveda, Ph.D., director and senior scientist at the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research (PIER) in Oceanside, came up with the concept for deep-set buoy gear in 2009.

With this method, a fishing line of one to three baited hooks is dropped to the depths where swordfish feed. When there’s a bite on the hook, the buoy on the surface moves, alerting the fishermen. The gear typically consists of up to 10 lines that fishermen monitor in real time.

Sepulveda explained in an email to The Coast News, “The idea was based primarily on our swordfish tagging studies which showed that California swordfish segregate from other bycatch species at depth during the day — they tend to hang out well below the thermocline and feed on deep forage with only occasional surface basking.

“This daily dive pattern seemed like an ideal opportunity for targeting swordfish and avoiding sensitive bycatch like sea turtles and marine mammals, species that predominantly remain within the surface waters.”

Sepulveda worked with PIER research biologist Scott Aalbers to modify typical hook and line methods for a gear design specific to the West Coast that would effectively catch swordfish and greatly reduce bycatch.

According to data from a PIER-led, seven-year study of commercial and experimental deep-set buoy gear trials off California shores, fishing with buoy gear resulted in a catch that was 83 percent swordfish, 12 percent bigeye thresher shark and 98 percent marketable. Non-marketable species, like blue shark and two elephant seals, were released alive.

PIER Director Chugey Sepulveda and Technician Paul Tutunjian deploy and test deep-set buoy gear, a fishing concept Sepulveda came up with in 2009 that targets swordfish at the depths where they feed while avoiding sensitive bycatch like sea turtles that tend to remain near the surface. Photo by Ralph Pace

The swordfish caught was also more profitable, as people will pay a premium for sustainably caught fish that is not mangled and makes it to market faster. Blacow said, “Last year, drift gillnet vessels targeting swordfish made $52,000 per vessel and those vessels targeting swordfish with deep-set buoy gear made $81,000 per vessel.”

Nonetheless, Sepulveda, who is also a fisherman, said deep-set buoy gear “was designed to provide fisherman with an additional opportunity, not to replace one of the few options our local fishermen have.” As such, he explained that commercial fishermen are disappointed by the passage of SB 1017 “as it means that they have one less tool available to harvest local swordfish.”

Sepulveda noted that domestic fisheries are much more regulated than the foreign gillnet and longline operations that the U.S. imports the majority of its swordfish from. Those imports “flood our markets at reduced prices,” Sepulveda wrote, which makes it hard for local fishers to compete.

In response to such concerns, Blacow wrote, “We acknowledge that an array of regulations have been put in place over the years in attempts to clean up the fishery. However, despite gear modifications and special closed areas the fishery continues to have unacceptably high amounts of waste — throwing back more than half of what is caught … . Just because an activity is regulated doesn’t automatically mean that activity should be occurring in the first place.”

Blacow pointed to a 2018 National Marine Fisheries Service study that estimates that “between 2001 and 2016 the California drift gillnet fishery captured 1,602 protected marine species including whales, dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles and seabirds.”

Furthermore, Blacow believes that restricting seafood imports that do not meet U.S. environmental standards would be a step in the right direction in ensuring food sustainability and the livelihoods of U.S. fishermen.

Sepulveda shared similar thoughts, stating, “Our ultimate goal is to enhance domestic sustainable swordfish operations, improve the availability of jobs in the fishing sector while reducing our reliance upon foreign under-regulated and substandard product.”