Stories in California

New Fishing Gear Could Make the Sea Safer for Endangered Wildlife

Americans eat more swordfish than any country in the world, with more than 85% of it imported from fisheries around the globe. Unfortunately, the fishing gear currently used for swordfish can have high rates of "bycatch," meaning that it accidentally captures vulnerable, non-target species like sea turtles. TNC’s California Oceans Program worked with our partners at the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research (PIER) to develop and test a new fishing gear to decrease bycatch in California’s swordfish fishery, and we’ve shown this gear works to reduce risks to turtles off our coast. Now it’s time to scale that impact to the global fisheries that supply the majority of our swordfish. We’re bringing the gear more than 5,000 miles away to Chile, a swordfish fishery with 35 times more fishing vessels than California, posing a significantly greater threat to sea turtles.

The California Oceans Program is collaborating with TNC Chile, Chilean fishery managers at IFOP (Instituto Fomento de Pesquero), and PIER to bring new low-bycatch technology to Chile and create new ways to protect marine species. This slideshow shows the first step in our project: tagging swordfish in Chilean waters so that we can follow their movements and adapt the fishing gear designed in California to the conditions in Chile. The strong scientific knowledge base built from this tagging work will help us reduce bycatch of turtles and other species and to outline a more sustainable path forward for the swordfish fishery world-wide.

Fishing boats in dock.
Chile Fishing boats in dock. © Ralph Pace

Fishing boats docked off Taltal, Chile, a historic fishing community that relies on swordfish to support their livelihood. Unfortunately, the fishing gears used by this community often accidentally catch sea turtles and other sensitive species in addition to swordfish.

2000-year old cave paintings depicting swordfish.
Chile 2000-year old cave paintings depicting swordfish. © Ralph Pace
2000-year old cave paintings depicting swordfish.
Chile 2000-year old cave paintings depicting swordfish. © Ralph Pace

A fishery with a long history: 2000-year-old cave paintings from indigenous Chango people depict swordfish fished off this coast thousands of years ago.

Satellite tags to be deployed onto individual swordfish.
Chile Satellite tags to be deployed onto individual swordfish. © Ralph Pace

These satellite tags will track the movements of individual swordfish for up to 30 days, helping us predict when and where they will interact with other marine species that need protection.

The tag is attached to a modified harpoon and affixed to swordfish when they come to the surface to “bask.”
Chile The tag is attached to a modified harpoon and affixed to swordfish when they come to the surface to “bask.” © Ralph Pace

The tag is attached to a modified harpoon and affixed to swordfish when they come to the surface to “bask.” Studies have shown that this approach is effective, doesn’t harm swordfish and increases the odds of recovering data on their movements.

Basking swordfish.
Chile Basking swordfish. © Ralph Pace

While the exact reasons why swordfish bask is not fully understood, the phenomenon occurs often enough to support small-scale fishing and scientific tagging.

Swordfish tagging.
Chile Swordfish tagging. © Ralph Pace

Damian Chapman, our industry partner and a leader in the fishing community of Taltal, throws a tagging harpoon at a basking swordfish.

Celebrating successful swordfish tagging.
Chile Celebrating successful swordfish tagging. © Ralph Pace

Patricia Zarate, Senior Fisheries Researcher and Head of the Highly Migratory Species Project at IFOP, celebrates the first successful tagging event with Damian. Three swordfish were tagged over the course of the research trip. 

Partners from TNC Chile, Instituto Fomento de Pesquero (IFOP) and PIER and TNC California.
Chile Partners from TNC Chile, Instituto Fomento de Pesquero (IFOP) and PIER and TNC California. © Ralph Pace

This first phase of the project is crucial to build a strong scientific knowledge base that will help us to reduce bycatch of turtles and other sensitive species and outline a more sustainable path forward for this fishery. Left to Right: Natalio Godoy (TNC Chile), Scott Aalbers (PIER), Chugey Sepulveda (PIER), Patricia Zarate (IFOP), Alexis Jackson (TNC California).