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 a recently enacted state statute threatens to wipe out longtime businesses, as well as the entire domestic swordfish supply. To preserve an industry that’s fed Californians and supported their livelihoods for generations, swordfishing families are fighting back against California’s overreach.
Fishing has been part of Austen Brown’s entire life. When he was eight years old, he began fishing with his father, gaining experience as a crew member and deckhand on boats up and down the West Coast. After getting his start with swordfish, Austen ran a boat in Alaska for nearly a decade, fishing for pollock and salmon, and most recently, he has run a longline boat in Hawaii, fishing for tuna.
Austen recently decided to return to California to pursue a career fishing for swordfish. He purchased the necessary equipment, including a vessel, as well as the required federal permit from another fisherman.
But California has other plans. California Senate Bill 1017, enacted in September of 2018, seeks to phase out the remaining permits for harvesting swordfish with drift gill nets, which are the only commercially viable gear. This would end swordfishing in the state, even though federal regulations expressly permit drift gill net fishing. (PLF successfully fought a misguided effort to end the federal authorization in another case.)
The ban is supposed to prevent accidental captures of other animals. However, with plenty of longstanding protections, such as seasonal closures and equipment and observer mandates for boats, unwanted bycatch is minimal. The ban 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, several fishermen are fighting back with two cases in federal court in California.
Abad, et al. v. Bonham, et al.
Filed February 27, 2020, in Sacramento, California
Plaintiffs: Joseph Abad and Austen Brown
Burke v. Bonham, et al.
Filed December 31, 2021, in Sacramento, California
Plaintiffs: Gary Burke, Fred Hepp, and Jeff Hepp