by Ernie Prieto
(760) 450-0403

A better way to catch swordfish?

New gear replaces gill nets that trap unwanted species


Facing a 94-pound swordfish, chef Rob Ruiz explored the question of sustainability in the kitchen, and in the ocean.

At his Carlsbad Village restaurant Land & Water Company, Ruiz used a pair of Japanese knives to carve the freshly caught fish. Carefully removing sections, Ruiz explained their different flavors and values. Meat near the bone has the highest nutritional value, he said, while marrow makes delicious fish stock.

The cheeks of the swordfish, he said, have a sweet, tender flavor “like a scallop blown up to the size of a pancake.” And a portion of the neck called the “comma,” he said, contains the most succulent meat on the fish.

Ruiz, who has been honored for his marine conservation efforts as well as his cuisine, said his preparation methods reflect “our ethos of always honoring the creature, not wasting any of it and always trying to do the right thing.”

The swordfish was caught the same day through an emerging technique known as deep-set buoy fishing. Just as the chef’s knives are designed specifically for seafood, the new gear promises to allow fishermen to target swordfish without entangling other sensitive species.

In September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that will phase out swordfish catch through drift gill net fishing — in which large mesh nets are dragged through the water column — and encourage the use of the cleaner fishing gear to reduce unwanted catch of marine wildlife, known as bycatch. In June, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, the regulatory body for West Coast fisheries, will vote on a plan for permitting the deep-set buoy gear.

Ruiz’s demonstration and a subsequent sampling of the seafood it produced were part of a recent event marking that process, and celebrating the role San Diego plays in pioneering seafood solutions for consumers, fishermen and ocean ecosystems.

“The fisherman is an endangered species in San Diego, too,” Ruiz said. “We have the opportunity for San Diego to become the most sustainable port in the country.”

Deep-set buoy gear is the result of a years-long effort to find alternatives to drift gill nets. The vast sheets of netting are the method of choice for most swordfish fishermen but have the unwanted consequence of entangling endangered leatherback sea turtles, whales, sea lions, sharks and other species.

To prevent that, federal regulators close a large swath of the Pacific from Central California to Oregon for three months a year, and introduced gear regulations to protect the animals. That precaution has substantially reduced accidental catch of turtles and other protected species.

But the closures and other restrictions have made it hard for boats to turn a profit. The swordfish fleet, with nearly 200 vessels off the West Coast in the 1980s and 1990s, has dwindled to about 20 boats, said Tara Brock, a policy analyst with The Pew Charitable Trusts. Most are based in San Diego and operate in the Southern California Bight, south of Point Conception, the only part of the coast not restricted by the closures.

As fishermen struggled with restrictions on swordfish, scientists sought alternatives. What if there were a way to catch swordfish when they were apart from protected marine life? Heidi Dewar, a fisheries research biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, started tagging swordfish to track their movements..

Drift gill nets operate at night, but Dewar and colleagues found that swordfish descend to deeper waters during the day, hunting in colder layers where air-breathing animals don’t travel. If researchers could develop fishing gear to target them in those depths, they could avoid harming other marine life.

Chugey Sepulveda, director, and senior scientists with the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research in Oceanside, known as PIER, took up that task. With a doctorate from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a passion for fishing, he was eager to find other methods for swordfish fishermen.

“Swordfish: my favorite fish in the ocean,” he said at the event. “My favorite fish on a plate.”

Sepulveda worked with other researchers and colleagues to drop long lines into the deeper waters where swordfish swim. When a fish hits, a buoy alerts fishermen that they have a strike. They can reel it in immediately and bring in fresher catch with far less bycatch. About 80 percent of the catch from the method is swordfish, and another 18 percent is other market fish, such as opah. Less than 2 percent is bycatch.

Through the new legislation, fishermen can receive a payout for turning in their drift gill nets and, in turn, invest in deep-set buoy gear. Under the proposed rules that the fisheries council will consider next year, 50 fishermen could receive deep-set buoy permits, with 25 more added each year as the council evaluates the results, Brock said.

Some fishermen aren’t convinced that the drift gill net ban is the best idea. Lance Rinehart is now a deep set buoy fisherman but said others who have built careers on gill nets should be able to retire with them.

“Those people who fished really hard with drift gill nets, they should be allowed to keep their gill nets,” he said. “It’s a closed fishery. It’s already regulated. They should just let it be.”

Sepulveda can relate to those concerns but said he’s confident that fishermen will be successful with deep-set buoy gear. 

“We are talking about providing our fishermen with a better option,” Sepulveda said. “It’s the evolution of the gear.”



Twitter: @deborahsbrennan

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Chubasco II

Captains Ernie Prieto
Trevor Rodgers
Oceanside Sea Center
Oceanside, CA

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