Deep-Set Buoy Gear and Swordfish: NMFS Moves Forward

PIER researchers tag a swordfish caught with DSBG. Photo courtesy of Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research.

In August, the West Coast Region branch of the National Marine Fisheries Service announced a move to allow deep-set buoy gear (DSBG) for swordfish in federal waters offshore of California and Oregon. It’s a step that fishery officials are optimistic could help invigorate commercial domestic swordfish markets.

Officials also say that the move could potentially provide almost $5 million in annual revenue for fishers, an economic impact that could expand if deep-set gear proves widely adaptable.

The projections are part of a NMFS Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), released in August. The DEIS provides an extensive analysis regarding deep-set gear and swordfish. Following the public comment period, which ended Oct. 4, NMFS plans to amend the Fishery Management Plan for West Coast Highly Migratory Species Fisheries.

The change would be called “Amendment 6: Authorization of Deep-set Buoy Gear.” Fishery managers say Amendment 6 is a priority; they say they want to have the plan changes finalized by next year and start issuing permits in 2023.

As many fishers know, swordfish catch by West Coast vessels has plummeted big time – falling 96% since 1985, according to NMFS data.

The decline is due to restrictions on the use of drift gillnets (DGN) during night-time hours because of DGN impacts on protected species. NMFS writes that the decline will continue, that the DGN fleet continues to shrink at a rate of 10% per year. Between 2015 and 2020, 84% of the total swordfish supply on the West Coast came from imports.

Of that 16%, 12% was supplied by DSBG, authorized via exempted permits since at least 2011. The balance was supplied by some remaining DGN and harpooning.

Over the years, many research projects indicated potential for DSBG as a method that could provide new opportunities for swordfish, a way to at least partially offset the loss from DGN restrictions. Because if deep-set gear, operated within a restricted program, could deliver 12% of total catch, what might its potential be if the program were opened up, if regulatory limits were pulled back? The swordfish fishery is healthy, population is plentiful and importantly, consumer demand is high.

Currently, there are two different types of California deep-set gear, referred to as standard and linked configurations. Both rely on simple hook and line techniques that use heavy weights to strategically place baited hooks at a target depth. A combination of weights, buoys and other signals are used to keep the system stationary and alert the fisher to a strike.

A critical feature of DSBG is that the gear can be kept at a constant depth. That’s ideal because swordfish, during the day, largely stay within a relatively limited stratum of water, about 250-350 meters below the surface.

So in theory, by fishing deep during the day, DSBG can avoid bycatch and selectively target swordfish. Putting it simply, species of concern, turtles and whales, for example, are not present at the depth preferred by swordfish during the day, so there’s minimal overlap with DSBG hooks.

(At night swordfish move much closer to the surface, mixing with numerous species, hence the challenges from using drift gillnets or shallowest longlines off the California coast.)

Chugey Sepulveda with the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research (PIER), led a significant part of the research on DSBG and targeted fishing for swordfish. Sepulveda, with colleague and co-author Scott A. Aalbers, presented their findings in a 2018 paper titled “Exempted Testing of Deep-set Buoy Gear and Concurrent Research Trials on Swordfish, Xiphias gladius, in the Southern California Bight.”

Importantly, this multi-year study trained local fishermen how to use the new gear.  Participants could deploy their gear as they wanted to, as long as they stayed within the conditions of their exempted permits, conditions pertaining to daylight operations, for example, and using the gear designs issued for the project.

The PIER research showed promise. Some important highlights:

  • Swordfish made up more than 80% of total catch. The bigeye thresher shark was the second highest bycatch at 16.2%.
  • Catch rates were between  one to three fish per set, which used only 10 hooks at a time.
  • Fishermen in the study received a higher price-point for the buoy fish than other gear types during the same time period.
  • After expenses, daily net income was estimated to be on average $1,087.

In March 2019, referencing the kind of work done by PIER, NMFS announced its intent to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) to study DSBG issues.

The Draft EIS analyzed three alternatives:

One was doing nothing— maintaining the status quo—which could include continuing with some exempted permits. The second option was establishing an open access fishery but with specific terms and conditions for gear and operations. The third choice was similar to the second, but also with establishing a limited access schedule within the California Bight, a schedule that would phase in a total number of permits, thereby allowing fishery managers to keep an eye on developments, impacts and to react to the demand for these new permits.

Alternative three is NMFS’ stated preference, with a proposed limit of 300 permits.

It’s important to note that with DSBG and swordfish, all of the action is within the Bight.

NMFS writes that “there has been no DSBG fishing to date in either Northern California or Oregon, we do not have data for these regions.” This is important because it underscores some inevitable questions about the extent to which this proposed program might expand, such as how attractive is this new opportunity for fishermen? Is there a demand for DSBG permits, and if so, how much of one?

The Draft EIS references a “full-scale fleet” for swordfish. Right now, though, domestic CA swordfish landed via DSBG is a niche market, with most catch going to local markets and restaurants. Possibly, depending on the success of the various gear configurations, supply will increase to be more “at scale,” broadly available via established supply logistics, not just locally consumed.

NMFS calculates that on average, between 5,286 and 8,812 individual swordfish could be taken annually with DSBG over the next 12 years. That catch estimate is used to further gauge revenue from alternative three, i.e., with permit phase-in and based on prices between 2018 and 2020. That sum comes to almost $5 million annually across three market regions: Los Angeles/Orange County, San Diego County and Ventura/Santa Barbara/San Francisco.

Both the PIER study and the Draft EIS acknowledge uncertainties about DSBG economics. The PIER report comments that “due to the low number of hooks deployed per day, economic viability has remained a concern for both managers and fishermen alike.” However, the PIER report also points out that fishermen continued to use DSBG even “when they had access to other fisheries, including DGN” fisheries.

Sepulveda, when asked about the extent to which a new permit program might expand, responded that “the biggest news is that this is a positive step for fishing opportunity. No, it does not answer all of the West Coast problems, but it’s a start.”

Another important factor Sepulveda cited is that DSBG fishing is “rewarded with a higher price/pound, so fishers receive added benefit from using the clean gear type.” The timeliness between catch and table is another reason for a higher price.

Sepulveda commented further that “as with many different industries, niche markets are important and offer fishers creative ways to meet consumer demand and make a living.

“I do believe the fishery will grow,” he commented. “However, I do not know the extent of the growth given that all of the fishing continues to only happen within the Southern California Bight. As the market expands, so will effort and landings.”

From the public record it’s difficult to assess just how interested—or not—Pacific fishers are in using DSBG for swordfish.

In 2019, after NMFS published its plans for an EIS, the agency received six comments, mostly from environmental groups which strongly supported the deep-set gear proposals because of low bycatch. There were no comments from commercial fishing organizations but their concerns were likely well known to fishery managers because organization staff are usually part of the public policymaking process.

The release of the Draft EIS in August started a new comment period that ended Oct. 4, regarding the conclusions and proposals within the document. As this article was published, those comments, if any, were not part of a public docket.

Mike Conroy is the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the Institute for Fisheries Resources. His take on the deep-set gear proposal is that, yes, there is some limited interest in it, “but people aren’t lining up to fish the EFPs (exempted fishing permits) which have been available over the past few years.”

Conroy added that it’s his understanding that “DSBG won’t be able to replace the volume previously supplied by the DGN fleet,” and that DSBG has a rather “significant initial capital investment.” He placed the cost for a full complement of gear at $15K. Also, he said, “many EFP holders gave up after the first year as the fishery has a steep learning curve and wasn’t economically viable.”

Remember high school science and learning about potential and kinetic energy? DSBG has potential. The kinetics, though, remain to be seen.