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Good intentions and negative transfer effects: The California swordfish fishery

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, via the National Marine Fisheries Service historic collection

A press release circulating on Twitter, which claims that a “deadly expansion” of a California fishery will negatively affect critically endangered leatherback sea turtles, has been making waves in the marine conservation and fisheries communities, inspiring a series of interesting discussions. Is it better to buy US-caught seafood with some bycatch than foreign-caught seafood from fleets with less strict environmental regulations? Is the current “Pacific leatherback conservation area”, a large region of the ocean where no fishing is allowed, too much of a restriction on U.S. fisheries? Can there be a balance between fisheries and conservation? I invited Jonathan Gonzalez, a California graphic designer with a strong interest in marine conservation issues, to write a guest post about the swordfish fishery in question. You can follow him on Twitter here, and he’s happy to answer your questions about this issue in the comments section of this post. In addition to his graphic design work, Jonathan has served as the assistant director of the Santa Barbara Marine Mammal center, and has worked with the California Shark Coalition to gather support from fishermen for the state’s recent ban on shark fins. 

by Jonathan Gonzalez

Fisheries are complicated and often misunderstood. We often see conflicting information about what fish we should or should not eat and we see general statements about certain gear types that over simplify an extremely complex issue. But don’t be discouraged, learning about fisheries can be very fun and can lead to eating seafood with confidence, free of any guilt or confusion. One particular fishery I want to talk about that is not only complicated, but in my opinion it is California’s most misunderstood fishery. I’m talking about the drift gillnet (DGN) fishery for swordfish and common thresher sharks (CTS). Swordfish, CTS and mako sharks caught in Hawaiian set longlines are also landed in California, but I am not going to talk about that here.  I am going to focus on the DGN fishery because this fishery has been in the headlines a bit lately because of recent motions that were voted on at a Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) meeting. Here is a press release you may have seen that in my opinion is full of factual errors and a few downright slanderous statements. I’m not going to point them all out and I’m not going to try to tell you what to do. Instead I am going to give you some background about the fishery and provide you with information that will hopefully help you to make an informed decision for yourself. Most folks prefer things to be simple. Most consumers like the idea of having a handy pocket guide that helps them to make the right choice when purchasing seafood. This can be a good thing because I actually believe that when we are presented with a clear choice between right and wrong, we have a pretty good track record of doing the right thing. These guides can also be bad because although they are created with good intentions, they lack up to date information on every fishery because let’s face it, we just don’t know enough about them all yet. We live in a time where a lot of people concerned about the state of the world’s oceans and they are willing to do something about it. That combined with the internet and social media, all of a sudden anyone with a computer is connected to a ton of information about what fish is “sustainable” and what gear types are bad. This is very exciting, but at the same time it’s pretty scary. I say scary because sometimes campaigns created by folks with good intentions can have negative transfer effects that can do more bad than good to their cause. I’ll come back to that.

It would be great if fisheries, fisheries management and seafood market chains were simple, but they’re not.  Some are extremely well managed, some are illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU), and everything in between. Sometimes it seems the more you learn about fisheries, the more you realize you don’t know. It’s a bit overwhelming (or extremely interesting) to attempt to wrap your head around everything involved in a single fishery, let alone several of them. I try to keep it simple by supporting fisheries that I know are well managed, and not supporting fisheries that either I know are not or I’m not sure about. Pacific swordfish have been harpooned since around the turn of the 20th century, but landings always varied year-to-year due to oceanic cycles in which the swords did not surface during the day. Swordfish generally surface at night to feed and swim to the depths during the day, though under certain conditions they will surface or “fin” during the day.

In 1978 a group of fishermen experimenting with DGN targeting CTS discovered that large-mesh nets set at night could catch swordfish, too. After biological studies were done on the gear, the California DGN fishery for swordfish started in 1982 following a bill that passed allowing fishermen to target swordfish with short-length, large-mesh gillnets. The primary target is swordfish, but CTS and shortfin mako sharks are also taken in the fishery. 200 permits were issued to this new, limited access fishery. Since then it seems like it has been one restriction after the another, mostly because the areas they fished were also home to several species of protected marine mammals and sea turtles, a migration route for gray whales and also a nursery and pupping area for CTS and other sharks. The Southern California Bight is a major pupping area and generally considered a nursery area for several species of immature sharks. A closure of the DGN fishery was implemented in 1986 from May 1- August 15 within 75 miles of the California coast creating an enormous conservation zone for CTS, shortfin mako and other shark pups and juveniles. In 1985 a closure to the fishery was implemented from December 15- January 31 within 25 miles of the coast to protect whales, mainly migrating gray whales. In 1990 voters approved Prop 132, which removed gillnets from state waters (within 3 miles of coast) mostly in order to avoid interaction with pinipeds. In 2001, the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area (PLCA) was implemented to protect leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles that come here to feed on jellyfish. This is a 230,000 square mile area that starts at Point Sur and out to the EEZ (200 miles offshore) all the way up to the Northern Oregon border. The PLCA is off limits to DGN fishing from August 15- November 15. When the PLCA reopens, the weather is typically too bad to fish anyway, creating serious safety-at-sea issues for the ones who decide to tough it out. One transfer effect of the PLCA was that most DGN fishermen that lived within the coastal range of the PLCA were forced to exit the fishery completely.

California’s swordfish fishery has a small impact on Pacific swordfish stocks, yet California fishermen are the most strictly regulated of all Pacific Rim fleets. When you take weather and all the above restrictions into account, one could say for all intensive purposes it is a year round ban. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why there are only around 32 active vessels in the fishery today compared to 129 in 1990. Barlow and Cameron (2003) reported that acoustic pingers significantly reduced cetacean and pinniped bycatch in the DGN for swordfish and CTS in California during a controlled experiment in 1996 and 1997. In 1997 electronic pingers and 6 fathom extenders were mandatory on all DGN sets. Pingers are acoustic deterrent devices which, when immersed in water, broadcast sound with a 4 second pulse rate. They are required to be attached every 300 ft. and within 30 ft. of the floatline. Though they drastically increase the time for fishermen to set and pull the nets in, pingers have lowered bycatch of cetaceans by 50%. The 6 fathom extenders (buoy lines) have drastically reduced bycatch of California sea lions and CTS which are typically near the surface at night when the nets are being dragged. Currently, over 90% of the total bycatch by numbers in the DGN fishery comes from a single species, the common mola (sunfish). Although there has not been a definitive study on the survivorship of common mola released from DGN gear, observations by NMFS observers and researchers suggest that a high percent (>90%) of them are released alive. This is where it gets even a little more complicated. While restrictions and closures piled up and landings and efforts decreased over the years, the U.S. continues to consume more swordfish than any other country. As a result, most swordfish consumed here in the U.S. is imported from foreign fleets that have no regulations to protect turtles and sharks to say the least. Most of this comes from areas where leatherbacks are considered more vulnerable than here on the West coast of the U.S. This undermines the important efforts that U.S. fisheries biologists and fishermen have made to protect such species.

Unilateral conservation regulation of U.S. fisheries can lead to higher sea turtle bycatch rates off shore. I like to call this the “leaf blower effect.” This also presents an uneven playing field to our local fishermen who simply can’t compete with the cheap prices of imported seafood. So how can we increase landings of swordfish in California without going backwards on management efforts to protect vulnerable and or endangered species? Fortunately this is what was discussed at the PFMC meetings on March 3rd. Topics discussed included a motion to determine if any changes could be made to the southern boundary of the PLCA to enhance DGN fishing opportunities. If the data and analysis show that there is any flexibility, then NMFS Protected Resources and Sustainable Fisheries divisions will determine any next steps. Another motion that came up was to have NMFS report to PFMC at their meeting in March 2013 with progress of research evaluating the bycatch rates, catch per unit effort, and other useful information of other gear types targeting swordfish, which could be used as an alternative gear to DGN to catch swordfish. In my opinion, this is great management at work. The World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy and the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific all agree. They all provided letters of support for both motions.

The DGN fishery in California has been the target of campaigns such as this one that triggered several negative transfer effects. The NGO saw CTS on the shelves of Henry’s Farmers Market and scheduled a meeting with Henry’s Director of Meat & Seafood to discuss removing it from the shelves because it is not “sustainable.” However, the NGO failed to provide specifics as to why not, so the shark meat remained on the shelves. Six months later the NGO created a petition directed at Henry’s President and CEO and after his inbox filled up, he eventually made the call to remove all shark meat from the product list offered at Henry’s. That year ended up to be Henry’s worst year in seafood sales in the company’s entire history. Also, fishermen were at sea catching CTS during the time of this campaign so when they came to port with the sharks they had caught, seafood buyers could not give fishermen a decent price because their retail clients were starting to reject offers. As a result, most of the shark meat was donated to a local homeless shelter. Nothing against a generous donation, but this was around late November when fishermen could have used that money towards their own families during the holidays. At around $3.50-$5.00 per pound, CTS is an affordable source of protein that is also low in mercury. When you take California caught CTS out of the picture, you open the door to more imported shark meat from countries with less conservation efforts in place and/or other cheap seafood that is less ethically sourced. This is just one example of how a campaign intended to save sharks had negative transfer effects all the way down every link of the market chain and did not save the life of a single shark.

After the collective negative impacts of this campaign and others like it, it was clear that the DGN fishery had an “image problem.” A meeting was initiated by NMFS that included the President of the NGO responsible for the Henry’s petition, DGN fishermen, seafood buyers, Henry’s Director of Meat & Seafood, fisheries biologists, fisheries economists as well as representation from Seafood for the Future and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program. The hope was that everyone involved would leave with a common understanding of the West coast DGN fishery for swordfish and CTS. I had the pleasure of attending this meeting that was held at the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific on April 28, 2011. The following statement was agreed on by all parties, “Locally caught common thresher shark comes from a well managed U.S. fishery and is harvested with appropriate methods and safeguards to ensure sustainability.”

Additional workshops were held at the Westin in San Diego on May 10th & 11th, 2011. I ask that you please review the presentations found here, it’s pretty cool stuff. The information from these workshops was instrumental in the Seafood Watch Programs decision to change the rankings of CTS and shortfin  mako sharks caught in California and Hawaii from “avoid” to a “good alternative” ranking.  The information shared also resulted in Henry’s decision to add California caught CTS and shortfin mako shark back to its list of seafood offered. Consider the negative transfer effects that would occur if we were to have 100% of our swordfish and CTS meat imported from fisheries with less interest in conservation. Or consider how other nations can hopefully use our management efforts here in California as a role model of progressive fisheries management that they can learn from, rather than a fishery that should be “phased out.” I hope you are inspired to learn more about fisheries issues that interest you by investigating both sides of the issue extensively before making up your mind about them and signing some petition that comes around. Our actions have consequences and we owe it to both ourselves and to our oceans to do more homework before jumping to simple conclusions regarding complex issues.