Why to Get Rid of Drift Gill Nets

There is a better alternative for the California commercial swordfish fishery

Commercial bycatch is the ­unintended catch of non­targeted species and continues to be a big problem in fisheries worldwide that target highly migratory species. Longline gear has a really bad reputation for bycatch: It’s one of the most commonly used gears for pelagic fishes and it has an enormous footprint. Nearly half a billion hooks were fished daily in the Atlantic alone during 2009.

swordfish in California
Deep-set buoy gear is a better alternative for the California commercial swordfish fishery.Jeff Rotman / Alamy Stock Photo

Dirty Gear

Drift gill nets, however, might be an even nastier customer than longlines when it comes to bycatch. This indiscriminate fishing gear has the ability to entangle and kill virtually every type of creature that comes into contact with it. Billfish, sharks and marine mammals are all vulnerable. What’s worse: If drift gill nets are lost at sea, they continue fishing until they sink or fall apart.

Fortunately, drift gill nets have been going the way of the dinosaur for some time now. The United Nations banned the use of large-scale drift nets in 1991, and the European Union banned gill nets of any size to catch swordfish and other large pelagics. The bad news is that they’re still being used in a few places, and some of you might be surprised to learn that one of these is the West Coast of the United States.

Yep, right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A., a group of California-based boats use drift gill nets to target swordfish. This fishery has been under scrutiny since it began in the early 1980s due to the high number of sea turtles, marine mammals and nontarget fish that are incidentally caught and killed. At the peak of the fishery in 1986, there were 251 permitted vessels. Today, with less than 20 vessels participating, the California drift gill-net fishery still kills more dolphins, porpoises and whales than all other fisheries on the U.S. West Coast and Alaska combined. They kill their fair share of striped marlin as well, even though the commercial sale of striped marlin has been banned in California since 1937. It’s difficult to know just how many marlin are killed by this fishery; the observer coverage for the fleet is around only 12 percent in recent years.

Buoy gear also yields a higher quality product because swordfish are landed and iced quickly.

Better Alternatives

This is an unfortunate situation in that you have a commercial industry targeting a species that is currently well-managed — swordfish is neither overfished or experiencing overfishing — but is using a “dirty” gear that incurs high bycatch. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are better alternatives to drift gill nets for the West Coast swordfish fishery.

For the last five years, researchers with the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research have been conducting studies on a West Coast-specific deep-set buoy-gear configuration. With deep-set buoy gear, fishermen drop baited hooks hundreds of feet below the ocean surface, targeting swordfish where they normally feed during daylight hours. This minimizes the likelihood of accidental catch of other marine life, and research indicates that roughly 94 percent of catch associated with buoy gear is marketable compared to only 35 percent of that associated with gill nets. Buoy gear also yields a higher quality product because swordfish are landed and iced quickly after being caught — a definite win-win for commercial anglers and marine life alike.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, with widespread support from the recreational and environmental communities, was steadily making headway on authorizing the use of deep-set buoy gear. That all changed in June: In a surprise move led by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the PFMC delayed its earlier decision to authorize deep-set buoy gear for the foreseeable future. Apparently, in spite of all the positive results yielded from years of research, the CDFW now appears to be a major hurdle in getting the PFMC to continue moving ­forward in authorizing buoy gear.

In August, a letter coauthored by several organizations, including the American Sportfishing Association, the California Coastal Conservation Association, the International Game Fish Association and Wild Oceans, was sent to the director of the CDFW urging the department to endorse the adoption of deep-set buoy gear through the PFMC, and a meeting was requested to discuss the issue in more detail. It’s imperative that the CDFW provides the leadership needed so the PFMC can move forward in authorizing buoy gear and providing a better alternative to destructive drift gill nets for the West Coast commercial swordfish fishery.