Swordfish is a very popular seafood and one of the most abundant types of fish on the West Coast. It is also a primary source of income and way of life for many California families. But recent legal changes at the state and federal levels threaten to wipe out longtime family-owned businesses as well as the entire domestic swordfish supply. The new rules supposedly aim to reduce the number of accidental captures of other animals in the drift gillnets used by swordfish fishermen. However, with plenty of state and federal protections already on the books, the new rules will do little to further protect endangered species. But they will destroy the freedom of responsible fisherman to earn a living. To preserve an industry that’s fed Californians and supported their livelihoods for generations, swordfishing families are fighting back against both levels of government overreach.
Swordfish is one of the most popular types of seafood. It is also a primary source of income for Chris and Dania Williams and a way of life for their entire family. Chris has been a swordfisherman for decades, and husband and wife have been selling their fresh catch at their Ventura market for nearly a decade.
Chris is among approximately 20 active swordfish permit-holders in the state, many of whom also have run small, family-owned businesses for generations. And like his fellow fishermen, Chris loves and cares for the environment he works in and the life it supports. So, for years, these fishermen have worked tirelessly with regulators to reduce the number of other sea animals snagged in their nets.
Despite responsible efforts to sustain both sea life and fishing livelihoods, recent laws at both the state and federal levels threaten to wipe out longtime family-owned businesses as well as the entire domestic swordfish supply.
California recently passed a law to phase out the remaining permits for swordfish, or drift gillnets, which are the only viable method for commercial swordfishing. This would end swordfishing in the state, even though federal regulations clearly allow the practice.
But federal regulators have implemented their own restrictions: so-called “hard caps” on the industry that automatically terminate an entire fishing season or more—for everybody—if the wrong type of animal gets tangled in the nets, even just twice. The new federal rule has big problems: it fails to minimize the negative economic impact on fishermen and their communities, as required by federal fishery law; and it was enacted by officials who were unconstitutionally appointed to their jobs as regulators.
These laws supposedly aim to prevent accidental captures of other animals. However, with plenty of long-standing protections such as seasonal closures and equipment and observer mandates for boats, unwanted bycatch is minimal. The new rule will, however, destroy the sustainably caught American swordfish supply. Demand will shift to foreign markets, where environmental accountability and oversight are less stringent. The unintended result: more animals accidentally killed or injured.
To preserve an industry that’s fed Californians and supported their livelihoods for generations, a number of the state’s fisherman are fighting back with two cases in state and federal courts.
Abad, et al. v. Director, Cal. Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, et al.
Filed February 27, 2020 in Sacramento, California
Plaintiffs: Joseph Abad and Austen Brown
Williams, et al. v. Ross, et al.
Filed March 6, 2020 in Washington, DC
Plaintiffs: Chris Williams, Gary Burke, Fred Hepp, and Jeff Hepp