Catching swordfish off the coast of California today means leaving milelong mesh nets deep in the ocean overnight. But what fishermen pull up is mostly not swordfish. For every one of the hefty, long-billed swordfish in a net, it’s estimated that there are four other marine animals entangled there.
The particular kind of drift “gillnets” used by swordfishermen have holes sized to ensnare swordfish (by their gills, hence the name). But the nets also capture dolphins, whales, sharks, sea turtles and numerous other species of fish. At least half of this “bycatch” is tossed back out to sea — in the case of dolphins, sometimes without their fins (which get tangled in the nets), leaving them no chance of surviving. Most of the mammals trapped in the nets are already dead or dying by the time the nets are raised, having spent hours thrashing underwater. But the marketable fish that are trapped by happenstance are hauled in and sold.
There is a United Nations treaty that outlaws large-scale gillnets in international waters because of their destructive effect on marine life, and the federal government has banned this kind of fishing in federal waters off the East Coast. (An attempt to limit gillnet fishing in federal waters off the West Coast fizzled last year when the proposal was shelved by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.) Other states have prohibited gillnets too, leaving California as the last state in the nation to issue permits for their use. Those permits are good only for federal waters off the California coast.
The National Marine Fisheries Service sends trained observers out to sea with gillnet fishers to count and report back what fish and mammals are caught with the nets. But in the 2016-2017 swordfishing season, the observers were present for only about a sixth of all such outings.
The way to prevent swordfishermen from indiscriminately killing sea life is to have California ban gillnets outright. California Senate Bill 1017, introduced by Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), would phase out drift gillnet fishing by Jan. 31, 2023, and compensate the fishermen who used them for the loss of their nets and permits. The compensation would peak at $75,000 for active swordfishermen who surrender their nets and permits and agree not to obtain new ones.
The number of drift gillnet permit holders has dwindled over the past decade; there are a little more than 70 today. Under the bill’s compensation plan, they would collectively receive about $2.5 million — with half the money expected to come from federal, nonprofit or philanthropic sources.
Yet fishermen who give up gillnets don’t have to find a new line of work — or even give up swordfishing. An innovative approach being used off the East Coast and tested off the West Coast employs deep-set buoy gear. Fishermen drop weighted hooks during the daytime as deep as 1,200 feet into the ocean. When swordfish go for the baited hooks, a buoy on (or under) the surface alerts the fisherman that a fish is on the line and can be retrieved. Studies by various environmental groups show the amount of fish caught incidentally using this kind of gear is reduced to a mere 2% to 3% of the entire catch.
Meanwhile, there are two bipartisan bills in Congress to ban drift gillnets in all federal waters. One is sponsored by California’s two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). The House companion to it is sponsored by Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.).