by Theresa Labriola
In September, the Pacific Fishery Management Council reversed an earlier decision to postpone permitting buoy gear in the swordfish fishery in favor of more research. Changing its mind, the Council has now decided to pursue authorization because five years of research already tells us that this new, highly selective gear can catch swordfish with less bycatch.
The Pfleger Institute for Environmental Research (PIER) in cooperation with NOAA west coast region designed deep-set buoy gear in 2011 after their research confirmed that swordfish spend the majority of the day at depths deeper than 1000 feet. PIER’s experimental fishing with five cooperating vessels continues to prove that the gear can target swordfish at depth, during the day, and simultaneously avoid sensitive bycatch species.
In October, I joined PIER on their 46 foot research vessel, Malolo, and witnessed firsthand the promise of deep-set buoy gear. Just after sunrise we left Oceanside, CA for an offshore day trip on calm seas. Armed with the new gear, we surveyed the water temperature, looked for a signs of schools of bait, and followed changing ocean currents until we found our fishing spot. We baited our hooks with squid and mackerel, and sent them deep, to where the swordfish feed. At the end of each line we secured set of buoys and a flag. We deployed another and another until we had set a series of deep-set buoy gear.
Large-scale commercial swordfish gear, such as drift gillnets and shallow set longlines, targets swordfish near the surface at night, inevitably leading to the catch and killing of myriad of other species that inhabit the upper water column at the same time, including blue sharks, striped marlin and mola mola and protected sea turtles and marine mammals. As we waited for our first buoy to signal a bite on our deep hooks, I wondered about the new gear’s effectiveness. Skeptics continue to assert that any time you put a baited hook in the water, you will catch unmarketable and protected species.
Using image stabilized gyroscopic binoculars, we surveyed our line of buoys and waited for a buoy to surface indicating a fish had taken our bait. Just after lunch, we spotted a white buoy. Fish on. We set our course towards the gear. Within a few minutes we reached it, affixed the monofilament line to an electric reel, and retrieved our catch. The PIER researchers, Chugey and Scott predicted we had a swordfish. Before I had my camera ready, a 120 pound swordfish surfaced. Because buoy gear allowed us to know exactly when the fish bit the hook, the team was able to retrieve the swordfish quickly. Chugey secured the fish along the boat and Scott inserted a set of pop-up satellite research tags before releasing the healthy fish.
Although we had a slow swordfish day, catching, tagging and releasing just one swordfish, three cooperating vessels fishing in the area caught 12 swordfish that day. We also caught an opah and escolar, but we did not interact with any unmarketable or protected species. That’s the take home message for me. By deploying a gear that targets swordfish at depth, during the day, where they feed, and where few other predators dwell, we can easily catch swordfish and minimize bycatch. Otherwise, these tasty squid and mackerel baited hooks would have attracted a bite.
Earlier this year, the Council tangled themselves in questions about potential buoy-gear modifications and efficiency in northern California waters. In September, they resolved that buoy gear, as currently configured and fished, reduces bycatch, brings California swordfish to market and fills a market for other freshly caught deep water species such as big-eye thresher shark. And it is providing California swordfish when other options such as harpoon and drift gillnet are not available.
In November, the Council will begin to tackle one hurdle towards authorization of the new gear: deciding who gets a permit. After spending just a day on the water, and hearing catch reports from cooperating fishermen, it’s apparent that experienced swordfish fishermen will find success catching swordfish with deep-set buoy gear, and those who know how to “read the water” for swordfish will excel at it. Wild Oceans will continue to encourage the adoption of deep-set buoy gear and the granting of initial permits to current deep-set buoy gear fishermen and those who have a history in the swordfish fishery, who are going to use them, use them correctly, and increase the domestic production of swordfish. And we’ll continue our work to keep the Council moving towards fishery implementation.
Become a member of Wild Oceans today and support our work at the November Council meeting to authorize “greener” deep-set buoy gear in the Pacific.