Commercial fishery descriptions

Surface hook-and-line fishery for albacore

This has been an economically valuable fishery for all three West Coast states for more than 100 years. The closure of West Coast canneries in the early 1980s led to precipitous drop in the number vessels landing albacore. In recent years landings have been concentrated in the Oregon ports of Newport and Astoria and the Washington ports of Westport and Ilwaco. This long-term northward shift in fishing effort into waters off Oregon and Washington, where albacore have been more available, is thought to be due to changing oceanographic conditions. In recent years lower operating costs and better landing facilities in Oregon and Washington compared to California also may have contributed to this shift. The following graph, showing the number of U.S. vessels in the albacore fishery making landings by year, illustrates these trends.

Troll and bait boat (live bait) are the principal commercial gears, although some albacore is incidentally caught by purse seine, longline, and large mesh drift gillnet gears. Oceanographic conditions influence the occurrence of fish within range of the West Coast fleet, but a typical season runs July through October, with landings peaking in August-September. This fishery lands albacore almost exclusively with little incidental catch.

The HMS FMP requires a federal permit with a surface hook-and-line gear endorsement for all U.S. commercial and recreational charter fishing vessels that fish for HMS within the West Coast exclusive economic zone (EEZ, from 3– 200 nautical miles from the West Coast) and for U.S. vessels that pursue HMS on the high seas (seaward of the EEZ) and land their catch in California, Oregon, or Washington.

Albacore is mostly landed fresh or frozen, with a portion of the catch then exported to overseas markets for processing.

A treaty between the governments of the U.S. and Canada allows vessels from each country to fish in the other country’s EEZ outside of 12 miles. Vessels also have port privileges and Canadian vessels may land albacore in designated ports. For more information, see the NOAA Fisheries website.

In 2021 the fishery landed 3,491 mt valued at $15.54 million. This was less than 2020 when the fishery landed 6,858 mt valued at $24.09 million. Over the past 10 years the number of vessels participating in the fishery has varied from 293 in 2021 to 815 in 2012.

The following figure shows landings in metric tons since 1981 through last year by U.S. and Canadian vessels. Note that confidential data (i.e., landings with less than three vessels or processors) is excluded in this figure. Less than three Canadian vessels made landings, or less than three processors received landings from those vessels, throughout the 1980s.

This figure shows inflation-adjusted ex-vessel revenue for the same time period. As in the previous figure, confidential data is excluded in this figure.

Drift gillnet fishery for swordfish and shark

This gear consists of floating gillnet panels suspended vertically in the water column to catch pelagic species. It has a minimum stretched mesh size of 17 inches and a single set of the gear may not exceed 6,000 feet in length. The gear is set at night targeting thresher shark and swordfish. In recent decades swordfish has emerged as the dominant target species, likely due to its higher value compared to thresher shark and possibly shark conservation measures implemented in the 1990s.

Although historically operating as far north as Oregon, today fishing occurs south of Monterey, mainly in the Southern California Bight in the fall and winter.

The fishery originally developed in the 1980s and has been in steady decline in terms of participation and catch since then. This decline is at least in part due to restrictions on the operation of the fishery to mitigate catch of marine mammals and sea turtles. Both Federal and California limited entry permits are required to participate. In September 2018 California enacted Senate Bill 1017, which created a program to phase out the fishery by 2024. The program includes a mechanism to buy back state limited entry drift gillnet permits along with the surrender of drift gillnet gear for destruction. The Federal limited entry permit also must be surrendered to participate in the program. Comparable Federal legislation is currently under consideration in Congress.

Seasonal temperature fronts that concentrate feed for swordfish are a major influence on fishing activity but regulatory time-area closures also have a big influence on seasonal patterns. The fishery is closed in the West Coast EEZ from February 1 to April 30 and closed within 75 nautical miles of the mainland shore from May 1 through August 14. For this reason almost all fishing effort occurs after August 15. This fishery is then effectively closed in an area north of Point Conception from August 15 to November 15 to protect leatherback sea turtles (the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area). As a result, landings mostly occur from November through January. The fishery also may be closed in an area south of Point Conception from June 1 to August 31 to protect Pacific loggerhead turtles during El Niños.

The drift gillnet fishery is managed by California state and federal limited entry permits. The federal limited entry permit was implemented in 2018 through Amendment 5 to the HMS FMP. It mirrors many of the features of the state limited entry permit and is required to fish in federal waters. In addition to these limited entry permits, the HMS FMP requires a general HMS permit with a drift gillnet gear endorsement for all U.S. vessels that fish for HMS within the West Coast EEZ and California requires a general resident or non-resident commercial fishing license, general gillnet permit, and a current vessel registration to catch and land fish caught in drift gillnet gear.

In the last 10 years DGN landings have varied between 75 mt and 237 mt while inflation-adjusted ex-vessel revenue has varied between $389,683 and $1,410,697. In 2021 the fishery landed 75 mt valued at $536,897. This was less than 2020 when 97 mt was landed. During that period the number of vessels participating in the fishery varied between 6 in 2021 and 21 in several previous years.

The following figure shows landings in the large mesh drift gillnet grouped by common thresher shark, swordfish, and other HMS for the past 10 years.

This figure shows inflation-adjusted revenue from those species over the same time period.

Harpoon fishery for swordfish

California’s modern harpoon fishery for swordfish developed in the early 1900s. Prior to 1980, harpoon and hook-and-line were the only legal gears for commercially harvesting swordfish. At that time, harpoon gear accounted for the majority of swordfish landings in California ports. But the development of the drift gillnet fishery in the 1980s supplanted harpoon gear as the main swordfish fishery. The pelagic longline fishery has also become a larger source of swordfish landings on the West Coast in recent years. As a result, participation in this fishery has declined.

The fishery typically occurs in the Southern California Bight from May to December, with landings peaking in August, depending on weather conditions and the availability of fish in coastal waters. Some vessel operators work in conjunction with a spotter airplane to increase the search area and to locate swordfish difficult to see from the vessel. This practice tends to increase the catch-per-unit-effort compared to vessels that do not use a spotter plane, but at higher operating cost.

A state permit and logbook are required to participate in the harpoon fishery in addition to a general resident or non-resident commercial fishing license and a current CDFG vessel registration along with the federal general HMS permit.

In the past 10 years harpoon fishery landings have varied between 5 mt and 28 mt while inflation-adjusted ex-vessel revenue has varied between $75,382 and $342,573. In 2021 the fishery landed 7 mt valued at $91,617 compared to 7 mt valued at $79,268 in 2020. During that period the number of vessels participating in the fishery varied between 10 in 2012 and 21 in 2017.

The figure below shows harpoon fishery landings, in metric tons, over the past 10 years.

This figure shows inflation-adjusted ex-vessel revenue over the same period.

High seas longline fishery for swordfish and tuna

The HMS FMP prohibits pelagic longline fishing within the EEZ. (Commercial landings of striped marlin, an incidentally caught species, are also prohibited on the West Coast.) Pelagic longline vessels fishing outside the West Coast EEZ land swordfish and tuna in West Coast ports, mainly San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Historically, pelagic longline vessels landing on the West Coast have been based in Honolulu but in recent years some vessels have made San Diego their home port.

The HMS FMP prohibits targeting swordfish with pelagic longline gear. However, vessels possessing a Hawaii longline limited access permit may land swordfish at West Coast ports. More than four-fifths of vessels landing on the West Coast possess a Hawaii permit.

In recent years pelagic longline has accounted for about two-thirds of total West Coast swordfish landings and a quarter of tuna landings, other than albacore tuna.

In the last 10 years the number of pelagic longline vessels making landings on the West Coast has varied from 8 to 23. Landings composition has shifted from swordfish to tunas and other species over the decade. In 2012 swordfish accounted for 68% and tunas 18% of the 411 mt in total landings made by this fishery. In 2021 swordfish accounted for 16% while tunas accounted for 61% of the 788 mt in total landings. Opah, which is not a management unit species in the HMS FMP, is also a significant component of landings. In 2021 at 143 mt it accounted for 18% of total landings. (Note that the totals reported here are greater than reported in Table 20, which only reports landings of management unit species.)

The following figure shows landings trends for opah, swordfish, and tuna, in metric tons, over the past 10 years.

This figure shows inflation-adjusted ex-vessel revenue for the aforementioned species.

Coastal purse seine fishery for yellowfin, skipjack, and bluefin tunas

This fishery is prosecuted by small coastal purse seine vessels operating in the Southern California Bight from May to October. These vessels usually target small pelagic species, such as Pacific mackerel, Pacific sardine, anchovy, and market squid. However, they will target more tropically distributed yellowfin and skipjack tunas when intrusions of warm water from the south, typically during periodic El Niño episodes, bring these species within range of this coastal fleet. Similarly, purse seine vessel operators will target the higher-valued temperate water Pacific bluefin tuna when they enter the coastal waters of the Southern California Bight. In recent years, the availability of Pacific bluefin in Southern California has increased substantially and has comprised about 15% of landings.

Between 2014 and 2020 purse seine fishery HMS landings have varied between 598 mt and 2,500 mt while inflation-adjusted ex-vessel revenue has varied between $667,388 and $2,940,032. (Earlier years are excluded due to data confidentiality requirements.) In 2020 the fishery landed 1,882 mt valued at $2,129,971. This compares to 598 mt in 2019. During the past 10 years the number of vessels participating in the fishery varied between 1 in 2012 and 14 in 2018.

The following figure shows purse seine fishery landings, in metric tons, between 2014 and 2020. (Earlier years are excluded due to data confidentiality requirements.)

This figure shows inflation-adjusted ex-vessel revenue for the fishery over the same period.

Deep-set buoy gear

Beginning in 2010 the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research (PIER) began design and testing of deep-set buoy gear (DSBG) as a low bycatch method to catch swordfish. The design was inspired by gear used off the east coast of Florida, but both the gear and deployment method were modified to suit conditions on the West Coast. PIER first presented preliminary results to the Council in March 2012 after the first year of research trials. In March 2015 PIER submitted an exempted fishing permit (EFP) application for review by the Council. Under its proposal up to five commercial vessels would be authorized to test the gear with PIER researchers monitoring their activity. (Two other individuals independently applied for EFPs to test the gear type at this time.) While fishing under the PIER EFP continued, the Council began actively soliciting EFP applications to expand the number of vessels testing the gear. At the same time, the Council began scoping an FMP amendment to make DSBG a legal gear along with associated fishery management measures. Since then, the Council has reviewed and made recommendations on over 100 EFP applications to test DSBG and related gear configurations and NMFS has issued permits to more than 50 vessels. To date 34 vessels have made landings with the gear.

Two DSBG gear configurations have been tested. So-called standard DSBG consists of independently deployed pieces of gear. Each piece consists of a set of floats at the surface that allows fish strikes on the gear to be detected, a weighted vertical line that puts up to three hooks below surface waters where sea turtles and marine mammals typically occur, or at least 100 meters (55 fathoms, 328 feet) below the surface. The terms of the EFPs allow no more than 10 pieces of gear to be deployed at any one time and the gear must be monitored during deployment. Strike detection leading to fast gear retrieval, deployment at depth, and active monitoring contribute to low bycatch with this gear. PIER subsequently developed a linked buoy gear configuration intended for larger vessels and greater production. Each piece of linked gear consists of two buoy and vertical line sets joined by a horizontal line at depth with three hooks attached to it by branch lines. Each of these gear pieces is joined by a horizontal line at least 11 meters (36 feet) below the surface. As with the standard configuration, no more than 10 pieces may be deployed at any time and the gear must be actively monitored. The figure below shows these gear configurations.

Standard and linked DSBG configurations

The Council took final action on a package of management measures in September 2019 including a limited entry permit program for vessels fishing in the Southern California Bight. The implementation process is ongoing and NMFS published an environmental impact statement evaluating the Council proposal in August 2021. Regulations authorizing the fishery should be in place by 2023.

Between 2015 and 2021 DSBG landings (including LBG) has varied from 12 mt in 2015 and 125 mt in 2020. Inflation adjusted ex-vessel revenue varied between $119,393 and $1,101,549.

The following figure shows landings in metric tons during this period.

This figure shows the resulting inflation adjusted ex-vessel revenue ($1,000s) for the same time period.

Participation by fishery

The following figures shows trends in the number of vessels making landings by fishery over the last 10 years.

Seasonality of HMS landings

Landings in HMS fisheries vary throughout the year. This seasonal pattern is shown in the following two figures showing average monthly landings over the past 10 years. (Landings in the albacore surface fishery are shown separately because they are at much larger scale than the other HMS fisheries.) Overall, landings have been highest in August at 4,013 mt. and lowest in April at 96 mt.