NATIONAL COALITION FOR MARINE CONSERVATION Speaks for Swordfish
Highly Migratory Species Management Team
Pacific Fishery Management Council
7700 NE Ambassador Place, Suite 101
Portland, OR 97220
RE: Agenda Item D – West Coast Swordfish Fishery
I am submitting the following comments on behalf of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation (NCMC) for consideration at the HMS Management Team meeting on January 10th.
The swordfish has been the fish in our logo for nearly 4o years. The fishermen that founded our organization in 1973 hunted swordfish. We have worked for swordfish conservation ever since, in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
At the September 2012 Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting in San Francisco, I testified on the future of a west coast swordfish fishery. As I told the council, we support the HMS management goal of providing a local and sustainable supply of swordfish. But I also said the use of drift gill nets or pelagic longlines should not be an option, because of the irresolvable bycatch problems associated with these non-selective gears. Fortunately, there may be an alternative.
When talking about gears like drift nets and longlines that catch such a wide range of species, it is dangerous to focus management goals on a single species, whether it is a target species such as swordfish or a bycatch species such as leatherback turtles. It is critical to understand that the history of attempting to manage the catch of a variety of target and non-target species has been complicated and costly, both from an economic and an environmental standpoint. It’s resulted in an expanding network of area closures, as this council knows all too well. Where these gears are permitted, It’s required in an increasingly complex maze of gear modifications and restrictions aimed at
avoiding numerous threatened or protected pelagic animals: turtles, seabirds, sharks and billfish as well as undersized swordfish. It’s meant quotas for swordfish that create dead discards. All with excessive monitoring and enforcement costs. None of which has made these gears either selective or sustainable.
So we are pleased and encouraged that a 2-year research effort is now underway on the west coast, conducted by the Pflegler Research Institute, exploring the use of buoy gear to catch swordfish. Buoy gear has been in use on the east coast for nearly 10 years. It shows great promise as a sustainable alternative to longlining for swordfish because it allows commercial fishermen to target swordfish while significantly reducing bycatch mortality.
In April of 2011 I participated in a Gulf of Mexico Longline Atlernative Gear Workshop hosted by the Harte Research Institute of Texas A&M University, to explore alternatives to longlining in the gulf, where longline bycatch of bluefin tuna, blue marlin and turtles is of great concern. One result of this workshop is an experimental buoy gear fishery to see if the positive benefits experienced off the Florida east coast can be replicated in the gulf.
The proven and potential benefits of this gear are many, as we heard at the gulf workshop from commercial fishermen successfully deploying buoy gear in Florida. Their anecdotal testimony is corroborated by a study under the NMFS Cooperative Research Program, Characterization of Swordfish Buoy Gear Catches in the Florida Straits, by Shannon Bayse and David Kerstetter of Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center. (Dr. Kerstetter may be contacted at [email protected]) Here’s what we know about buoy gear so far:
There is very minimal bycatch. According to the study referenced above, the catch consists of about 94% swordfish.
It is not a passive gear like drift nets and longlines, but is actively fished, that is, the gear is tended and fish are retrieved upon hook-up. What little bycatch there is can be released alive, since the animals spend a short time on the hook, as compared to many hours on a longline. In addition, survival of released fish is high because fish are externally hooked, even with J-hooks.
No turtles, billfish, seabirds, or marine mammals have been caught on buoy gear.
Big non-target fish, like sharks, don’t foul the gear, as they do with drift nets and longlines.
The catch rates in Florida are very high – over 300 swordfish per 1,000 hooks vs. about 8 swordfish per 1,000 hooks on longlines.
Actively fished gears like buoy gear provide fresher, higher quality swordfish. East coast commercial fishermen are working with retail chains, like Whole Foods, to get higher prices for their “sustainable” product.
In summary, we support a sustainable swordfish fishery on the west coast. To that end, we encourage the Pacific Council to work closely with the Pflegler Research Institute in its pilot program, as well as to fully investigate the use of buoy gear and experiments elsewhere, with the goal of determining if buoy gear is what we’re all looking for - a commercial gear that has a high catch rate of swordfish with almost no bycatch, one that can eventually augment the traditional harpoon fishery in California (also bycatch-free) and create a local and sustainable supply of swordfish on the west coast.
NATIONAL COALITION FOR MARINE CONSERVATION