chockymonsta/FlickrPolicymakers and environmental groups are reconsidering their stance on the swordfish fishery.
The swordfish industry has been vilified for years.
They’ve been painted as a fleet of fishermen determined to troll the oceans with their “curtains of death,” or gill nets, in order to capture the magnificent fish at the deathly expense of migrating turtles, dolphins and whales.
But government officials and one very powerful and influential environmental group say that picture is inaccurate. They want the government to consider expanding, or at least reevaluating, the West Coast fishery.
“We’d like to help the public understand that while we want to protect turtles, it may be a time to take a broader or more holistic view” of the fishery, said Chuck Cook, director of the coastal and marine program with The Nature Conservancy in California.
The Nature Conservancy does not have an official position on the issue.
At a meeting of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which is meeting this week in San Mateo, government officials, fishermen and environmental groups listened to testimony and discussed the future of the swordfish fishery.
The council is a government entity made up of state, federal and tribal representatives who work together to manage and recommend regulation and fishing policies for the West Coast.
The California swordfish fishery has declined drastically in the past 20 years, falling from a peak of 130 fishing permits in 1992 to just 39 today, Cook said.
And of those 39, only 15 are active, said Kathy Fosmark, a third-generation fisherwoman in California, and co-founder of the Monterey-based Alliance of Communities for Sustainable Fisheries.
California is the only western state with a swordfish fishery.
Cook and Fosmark say the decline is in part due to a 214,000-square-mile no-fishing zone stretching from Point Conception in the south to Newport, Ore. in the north that was created in 2001 and 2003. The zone is closed to the swordfish fishery between August and November, the prime time for catching them, Fosmark said.
But the declining fishery hasn’t stopped U.S. consumers from wanting the fish.
The U.S. is the largest swordfish consuming country in the world, according to Mark Helvey, the National Marine Fisheries Service’s assistant regional administrator for sustainable fisheries in the Southwest region.
Cook, of the Nature Conservancy, said the U.S. imports roughly 75 percent of its swordfish from “unregulated and unobserved industries with high bycatch rates, much higher than the heavily regulated and observed fleets in the United States.”
"Bycatch" refers to animals that are incidentally taken in a net, such as turtles, sea mammals, birds and other non-targeted fish species.
Cook, who along with Helvey was part of a Pacific Fisheries Management Council workshop on swordfish in March, said he was struck by what he learned there.
“I was stunned at the high bycatch rates for international tuna and swordfish fleets,” he said. “Peru has a severe problem with bycatch and turtles.”
U.S. fleets are required to have an observer on board, report their catch and any incidental take (or bycatch), and use special gear to minimize contact with air-breathing animals such as turtles, dolphins and whales.
Jon Brodziak, a scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the swordfish population is very large, and that according to a 2009 assessment of the fishery, the population was 30 percent above the target level.
“This is a well-adapted, apex predator that feeds on small fish and large fish, like tuna. They grow rapidly … and are extremely resilient to fishing,” he said.
But there are groups that want to keep the fishery constrained.
At the Pacific Fisheries Management Council meeting, a representative from the environmental group Oceana stressed the danger gill netting poses to marine animals, and asked the council to invest in harpoon fishing instead.
Ben Enticknap, the Pacific Project Manager for Oceana, said the federal government should simply restrict imports from nations that don't have good fishing practices.
"They have the tools to restrict imports," he said, adding that would solve the consumers' dilemma of buying unregulated swordfish.
He also said consumers might want to avoid eating swordfish for other reasons, including high mercury levels found in the flesh.
The council moved to get more information about the Pacific swordfish fishery before making any new policy recommendations.