Historically, swordfish off California were skillfully caught with harpoons, allowing fishermen to catch swordfish one by one with virtually zero bycatch. The fishery transformed from a predominant harpoon fishery to primarily a drift gillnet fishery in the early 1980s when driftnets became legal to use.
Since then, the price of a pound of swordfish caught by harpoon has more than doubled relative to the price of gillnet caught swordfish. For example, in 2008, harpoon caught swordfish yielded $6.26 per pound compared to $2.80 per pound for drift gillnet caught swordfish.
With the introduction of drift gillnets, swordfish landings increased initially, but for a variety of reasons gillnet landings have waned in the last two decades. While California landings of swordfish from drift gillnets have hovered around 500 metric tons annually over the past decade, the harpoon fishery brought in over 1,600 metric tons at its peak in 1979.
It’s high time we phase out drift gillnets and return to a harpoon fishery which has zero bycatch. We should also consider the potential for other alternative gears like buoy gear, which is a floatation device from which a single line is hung containing no more than two baited hooks attached.