Starting Friday for the next five weeks, fishermen who net swordfish will find a large stretch of local waters closed off to protect sea turtles.
Fishermen often use drift gillnets to catch swordfish. The nets hang out off the back of the boat, sometimes up to a mile, and swordfish that swim into them get tangled in the mesh. Problem is, so does other sea life. It’s a phenomenon called bycatch, and sometimes endangered loggerhead sea turtles are part of the unintended haul.
At the urging of environmental groups, the National Marine Fisheries Service has closed off 25,000 squares miles of the Pacific to gillnet fishing. So until the end of August, the only legal way to catch swordfish is with a harpoon or a hook and line.
Environmentalists say loggerhead turtles are particularly vulnerable right now. Unusually warm ocean temperatures associated with a developing El Nino weather pattern can lure loggerheads into local waters in search of food.
Just over a dozen local commercial fishing boats use drift gillnets. A lot of other fishermen have relocated to other places, including Hawaii. The swordfish fishery is valued at just around $1 million a year – a small fraction of the state’s overall commercial catch.
The map below shows the approximate boundaries of the gillnet closure area.
(Approximate boundaries based on the description of the Pacific Loggerhead Conservation Area. Source: National Marine Fisheries Service)