Questions and Answers for Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Authorization of Deep-Set Buoy Gear
NOAA Fisheries is publishing a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) concerning authorization of Deep-Set Buoy Gear (DSBG) as an additional gear type for catching swordfish in federal waters off of California and Oregon.
Why are NOAA Fisheries and the Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) moving to authorize deep-set buoy gear (DSBG)?
- NOAA Fisheries and the Council are partners in managing U.S. fisheries in federal waters under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act (MSA). The MSA includes 10 National Standards for the management of U.S. marine fisheries.
- The swordfish stock off the U.S. West Coast is healthy, yet the large majority of swordfish consumed on the West Coast comes from elsewhere.
- In 2019, over 2,000 metric tons of swordfish were supplied to southern California alone. However, only 17 percent of this supply came from domestic sources, with the remaining 83 percent supplied by foreign imports. Moreover, of the swordfish that is caught and landed to the U.S. West Coast by U.S. vessels, the majority are from Hawaii-based longline vessels fishing distant waters, and not from West Coast-based vessels.
- Most of the species that interact with commercial gear used to catch swordfish are highly migratory and also interact with commercial gear used on the high seas and by foreign swordfish fleets.
- These conditions have led to substantial interest in creating new opportunities for West Coast-based commercial fishermen to sustainably harvest swordfish from an underutilized stock, increasing domestic supply to West Coast ports, and reducing reliance on foreign imports and environmental impacts associated with foreign fishing practices.
- Drift gillnet and harpoon are the only two gear types currently authorized to harvest swordfish in federal waters off the U.S. West Coast. Of the two, drift gillnet has historically contributed the majority of swordfish landings to the West Coast. Since the 1990s and early 2000s the drift gillnet fleet has adhered to strict and effective regulations for reducing marine mammal and turtle bycatch; however, participation in this fleet significantly declined since that time.
- Through years of adaptive management of the drift gillnet fishery, NOAA Fisheries and the Council have experience in reducing take of non-target or protected species in the U.S. West Coast swordfish fishery. Deep-set buoy gear was designed with bycatch minimization in mind.
How do the Council and NOAA Fisheries decide to authorize a new gear type to target swordfish off the West Coast?
- Without additional viable fishing opportunities, the U.S. West Coast swordfish fishery is unlikely to operate at optimum yield—a management objective described in National Standard 1 of the MSA. This means that despite high consumer demand, the swordfish stock off the West Coast will continue to be underutilized—in other words, U.S. fishermen could be catching and supplying more swordfish to the West Coast without overfishing the population, and under strict mandates for minimizing bycatch and protected marine mammals and protected species.
- The Council developed a draft Swordfish Management and Monitoring Plan (Plan) to develop a holistic set of goals for the West Coast swordfish fishery and track progress across fleets and management actions and through changes in the membership of the Council. The Plan highlights a suite of potential actions for the fishery including consideration for testing and authorizing new gear types.
- The Plan was first drafted in 2015. Soon after, the Council scheduled ongoing review of and recommendations for exempted fishing permits (EFPs) to test new or modified gear types. In the years that followed, the Council recommended NOAA Fisheries issue special privilege permits to over 50 vessels to test DSBG and other gear types for catching swordfish in federal waters off the West Coast.
- The Council revisited the Plan in 2018 and set a schedule to prioritize authorization of DSBG as a legal gear type, such that permits could be issued on an ongoing basis to fish the gear in federal waters off the West Coast.
- After years of input from the Council’s advisory bodies, NOAA Fisheries, and the public, the Council recommended a Final Preferred Alternative for authorizing DSBG. This prompted NOAA Fisheries to complete a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) to analyze the impacts of the proposed action on the biological and socioeconomic environment.
- NOAA Fisheries incorporated data through 2020 to produce the analyses in the DEIS, whereas the analyses before the Council were based on data through 2018.
- This DEIS is a requirement under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and provides information for interested parties to consider and provide feedback to NOAA Fisheries as the action agency. NOAA Fisheries will consider any feedback provided when preparing a Final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision under NEPA, or when preparing any rules to implement an action alternative under the MSA.
- NOAA Fisheries is soliciting public comment on the DEIS, and will take those received into account in preparing a Final EIS and implementing regulations.
What is deep-set buoy gear (DSBG) and why is it a promising new gear for the swordfish fishery?
- DSBG is a type of fishing gear that catches fish in deep water using a long vertical line attached to surface buoys. It has been explored on the West Coast as a method for targeting swordfish since 2011.
- DSBG was first developed through scientific research trials, and more recently through exempted fishing permits (EFPs). These EFPs allow fishermen to test gears which are not currently authorized, and provide valuable data on the practicality of the gear, as well as its potential to catch target and non-target species.
- DSBG is “actively tended,” meaning fishermen are immediately aware of a bite through the use of strike detectors. This helps to reduce bycatch mortality, and can also result in the catch of high quality swordfish.
- During the course of EFP fishing, DSBG-caught swordfish has typically fetched a higher price per pound than swordfish caught using longlines or drift gillnets, or imported from other countries. However, the catch per day of swordfish using DSBG is variable, ranging from zero to as many as 11 fish in a single day; the average was 1.2 fish per day from 2015-2020.
What would approval of DSBG mean for protected species like marine mammals and sea turtles?
- Based on data from EFP trials, DSBG is a highly selective gear type with swordfish constituting a majority of the catch. The DEIS projects that impacts to non-target species are not expected to negatively affect stocks of these species. To-date, with over 2,000 days fished, the gear has been observed to interact with two protected species: northern elephant seals and a loggerhead sea turtle. The analysis in the DEIS suggests that ongoing impacts to these species are likely to be minor if DSBG is authorized.
- In the DEIS, NOAA Fisheries examines the possibility of impacts to protected species in the action area which have not had any interactions to date with DSBG. While we cannot predict these impacts since there is no data to estimate how often they could occur, or if at all, any potential interactions with protected species as a result of the proposed action would be considered with respect to our duties under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.
- To the extent that authorization of DSBG reduces U.S. reliance on imported swordfish products, net gains are anticipated for transboundary populations of protected species affected by swordfish fisheries (e.g., loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles).
Will DSBG replace drift gillnets?
- The proposed action is to authorize DSBG as an addition to the suite of gears currently permitted to target swordfish in federal waters off the U.S. West Coast.
- NOAA Fisheries does not make assumptions in the DEIS about DSBG resulting in reduced effort by U.S. fishermen using other gear types. Such assumptions would be highly speculative given the variety of factors involved in fishermen choosing to fish one gear over another, such as differences in operational costs, suitability of the gear for particular fishing grounds, or weather conditions, etc.
- However, we do examine the cumulative impacts of DSBG authorization with respect to other potential changes to the West Coast swordfish fishery, including current and potential regulations for the drift gillnet fleet.
Will DSBG be economically viable?
- NOAA Fisheries projects that authorizing DSBG would result in a net increase in annual landings and revenues to regions where DSBG swordfish has been landed to date. However, our analysis of socioeconomic impacts suggests there may be a small negative price effect of increased DSBG landings. In other words, increased supply of DSBG-caught swordfish is associated with a decrease in DSBG-caught swordfish price. We also found some preliminary evidence that swordfish catch rates might decline as effort increases. Under a scenario where swordfish catch rates remain at the average rate seen in 2018-2020 (years in which more vessels participated in EFP fishing), revenues are more modest than they appear if we assume that swordfish catch rates will follow from the average over all years of EFP fishing.
- Ultimately, the socioeconomic benefit of authorizing DSBG will depend on whether the gear proves to be profitable to fishermen, and to what extent. If fishermen struggle to turn a profit using this new gear type, the actual participation (and resulting socioeconomic benefits) might be lower than the levels anticipated in our analysis. Socioeconomic benefits will also be influenced by non-fishery-related factors, such as weather and climate conditions, the natural migration of swordfish, and consumer demand for a locally-caught, high-quality product.
How can I get a DSBG permit?
- If an action alternative for authorizing DSBG is selected, NOAA Fisheries will implement the action under the authority of the MSA, by publishing regulations in the Federal Register, including terms and conditions for obtaining a permit and fishing DSBG off the West Coast.
- The DEIS identifies the Council’s preferred alternative. That is, the Council recommended that permits be issued on a first-come-first-served basis to fish DSBG in waters of central California to Oregon (i.e., north of Point Conception) as an open access program; but, that permits to fish DSBG in the Southern California Bight (i.e., south of Point Conception, 34.45 degrees North latitude) be issued under a limited entry program.
- The Council recommended specific qualifying criteria to determine the order in which to prioritize issuance of limited entry permits to applicants. Under the Council’s preferred alternative, a total of 300 limited entry permits could be issued over a 12 year period, with up to 50 permits issued initially and then up to 25 more in each subsequent year.