Fishing Gear 101: Greenstick Gear and Buoy Gear – An Innovative Way to Fish for Tuna and Swordfish

**Feature photo is a greenstick fishing boat. Credit: NOAA. 

Consumers often ask us to describe various types of fishing gear and explain which ones cause the most destruction to the ocean. Another frequent question is why our seafood ratings for a particular species differ depending on the fishing method used. To help answer these questions, we decided to create a Fishing Gear 101 blog series. In this series, we describe how common types of gear work, what they catch, how they affect ocean wildlife and habitats, what technologies or regulations can help lessen the gear’s negative effects, and what we see as the path forward to ensure healthy oceans in the future.

We want to help seafood consumers, businesses, and chefs who use our seafood ratings better understand what the terms ‘trawl’, ‘longline’, or ‘handline’ really mean. We also hope Fishing Gear 101 will help everyone understand the collateral damage that fishing can cause to the ocean and the importance of choosing seafood caught in a responsible way.

Next in this series we are covering two new innovative fishing gears: greenstick gear and buoy gear. Fishermen use greenstick gear to catch tunas and buoy gear to catch swordfish. U.S. fishermen, scientists, and conservationists continue to work together to develop these gears as an alternative to destructive longlines and drift gillnets. In contrast to longlines and gillnets, both greenstick gear and buoy gear catch minimal amounts of non-target ocean animals.


Greenstick Gear and Buoy Gear –  An Innovative Way to Fish for Tuna and Swordfish

What is greenstick gear and buoy gear?

The “greenstick” is a large, 35-45 ft fiberglass pole with a 500-800 ft fishing line. Attached to the main fishing line are 5-10 shorter lines, each with a plastic squid lure on a hook. The fiberglass pole is mounted to the center of the boat. The boat tows the fishing line through the water while fishermen repeatedly jerk on the line to bounce the squid lures over the water’s surface, to entice the tuna to attack. (It is sort of a cross between jigging and trolling.) Once a fish is hooked, the line is quickly pulled in1,2.


greenstick gear

Depiction of greenstick fishing. Credit: Bailey Farnsworth/The Pew Charitable Trusts


greenstick squid lures

Greenstick squid lures. Credit: NOAA


Swordfish buoy gear is simply a free-floating buoy attached to a fishing line. The fishing line may contain one to three baited hooks. Fishermen fish 10-15 of these buoy lines at one time and will set them in a straight line. Fishermen actively monitor the gear for a strike. When the fish takes the bait, it pulls the buoy out of line. This lets the fishermen know a fish has been hooked and they can quickly pull in the line. Alternatively, the gear may have a bite indicator float that lets the fishermen know a fish is on the line1.


swordfish buoy gear

Depiction of buoy gear fishing. On the East Coast, buoy gear is fished at night and in surface waters. On the West Coast, buoy gear is fished during the day and in deep waters, as shown in this image. Credit: The Pew Charitable Trusts.


What do greenstick gear and buoy gear catch?

Fishermen use greenstick gear to catch tunas, most notably yellowfin tuna, but also some bigeye, skipjack and blackfin tunas. Fishermen use buoy gear to catch swordfish.

tuna and swordfish

Yellowfin tuna (left) and swordfish (right). Credit: NEFSC/NOAA


How do greenstick gear and buoy gear affect the ocean?

Both greenstick gear and buoy gear have minimal effects on the ocean because they are highly selective for the target species and do not make contact with bottom ocean habitats.

When fishing with greenstick gear and buoy gear, generally 85-90% of the catch is made up of the desired tuna or swordfish species. And unlike the longlines and gillnets these gears were designed to replace, they almost never catch sea turtles, marine mammals, or depleted bluefin tuna1. Additionally, because fishermen actively monitor the fishing gear and quickly pull the line in once a fish is hooked, fishermen can typically release any unwanted species that are caught back to the ocean alive. For instance, buoy gear sometimes catches sharks, but fishermen are almost always able to release the sharks back to the ocean alive.

What can be done to lessen the negative effects of this fishing gear?

Because these fishing methods have very minimal negative effects on non-target ocean wildlife and ocean habitats, measures to lessen negative effects are not needed. However, scientists and fishermen continue to work on perfecting these methods2.

The Path Forward

Some U.S. fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic are currently using greenstick gear and buoy gear as an alternative to longlining. And now there is a push to bring buoy gear to the U.S. West Coast, to slowly replace the destructive drift gillnets currently used to catch swordfish. Switching to these more selective gears provides many benefits to ocean wildlife. It can also benefit fishermen. Because the catch is immediately pulled in and fishermen do not stay out fishing for weeks at a time, they have a fresh, high-quality, sustainable product to offer chefs, retailers, and consumers. This means that fishermen should get a higher than average price for their catch.

The development of greenstick gear and buoy gear shows that fishermen, scientists, and conservationists can work together to find better ways to fish! We need to continue to encourage the use of these gears in the U.S. and around the globe.

**Note: U.S. buoy-gear caught swordfish is rated “green”. The U.S. greenstick fisheries for tuna in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico are not rated green at this time, due to the current overfished state of both yellowfin and bigeye tunas.

Hooked? Check out the entire Fishing Gear 101 series here!



 1.) Alternative fishing gear to stop the waste of bluefin tuna,The Pew Charitable Trusts; Deep-set buoy gear: a better way to catch swordfish, The Pew Charitable Trusts; Innovative solutions: reducing unwanted catch in tuna and swordfish fisheries, The Safina Center.

 2.) Catching just the right fish, The Pew Charitable Trusts Magazine; Fishermen finds a way to help sea animals avoid needless death on hooks, National Geographic Ocean Views


Elizabeth Brown-Hornstein is a Research Scientist at The Safina Center. 

2 Comments on “Fishing Gear 101: Greenstick Gear and Buoy Gear – An Innovative Way to Fish for Tuna and Swordfish

  1. Thank you Elizabeth for this descriptive fishing gear lesson. I met our daughter, Laurel Kirkeeide Jennings, in late July in New Orleans. This was a NOAA work trip for her and a lovely get-away for me. She explained about the differences between pelagic long line and greenstick gears. With your added article with pictures, photos and diagrams, I have a clearer understanding of the current and promising changes ahead.
    Judith Bugarske Kirkeeide

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