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NOAA Fisheries Cuts Safety Net for Pacific Whales and Sea Turtles

by Theresa Labriola

For more than forty years, California fishermen have used mile-long drift gillnets to catch thresher shark and swordfish, a period during which most of the world banned drift netting, including off the east coast of the United States. That’s because driftnets indiscriminately entangle any large animal they encounter, and for every fish caught and kept for market, another non-target animal is dumped overboard. With this deadly gear still in the water off the west coast, fishery managers have struggled to reduce the bycatch of marine mammals and endangered sea turtles by restricting and constraining where and how the fishery can operate.

Continued concerns over bycatch and accountability prompted the Pacific Fishery Management Council to hold the California drift gillnet fleet to a higher standard. Nearly two years ago, they unanimously agreed to implement hard caps or strict limits on the allowable number of interactions between drift gillnets and certain species of concern, including sperm whales and leatherback sea turtles. The Council included a mandatory closure of the fishery if the fleet reached a cap. This would have established a bright-line standard, unambiguous rules designed to ensure that the fleet plan and act responsibly when deploying its nets. Then, last month, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) cut the safety net and rejected the Council’s recommendation.

“The road fell out and now we are stuck in a sink hole,” commented the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, a champion of hard caps.

In an effort to misdirect attention from their failure to safeguard the health of our open ocean from indiscriminate commercial fishing gear, NOAA Fisheries published a glossy spread, with tantalizing statistics promising the drift gillnet industry had cleaned up its act. The NOAA Fisheries West Coast Regional Administrator said, “The fishery has made great improvements over the last two decades. If you look at the number of whales, turtles, and dolphins affected, they have declined over the years and remain very low today.”

But, the propaganda misrepresents the regulatory landscape and compares apples to oranges. Here’s what isn’t said:

The California drift gillnet fleet has shrunk from 228 active vessels in 1985 to 22 active vessels today. So it’s no surprise that the number of interactions with endangered marine mammals and turtles has decreased. In short, the interactions between the drift gillnet fishery and whales and sea turtles have declined because the number of fishing vessels has decreased.

If you look closer, you see that finfish bycatch continues to make up the majority of the fish caught in drift gillnets. From 2001-2016, the fleet discarded more than 55 percent of the finfish caught in drift gillnets. That’s one fish dumped for every fish kept. Mola comprise the majority of this bycatch and have outnumbered the catch of swordfish in each of the past 15 years except one.

NOAA Fisheries’ shell game covers up the continued harm caused to marine mammals and sea turtles as well. In 2001, NOAA Fisheries established the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area, which annually closes 213,000 square miles of ocean to drift gillnets from August 15 to November 15. It is true that the closed area successfully reduced the number of encounters between drift gillnets and critically endangered sea turtles. But, we cannot attribute this success to any innovation in the gear, but rather to the removal of the gear from the ocean. In addition, the leatherback sea turtle population has plummeted by more than 97 percent since the 1980s, meaning there are fewer individuals to snare. Despite the leatherback’s precipitous decline and the fleet’s shrinking footprint, fishery observers still witnessed two interactions this decade. Allowing drift gillnets to fish in the Pacific further jeopardizes the already decimated leatherback sea turtle population.

Just last year we saw a spike in the bycatch of northern right whale dolphins. The fishery killed six. This illuminates the truth that while we can restrict the fishery in space and time, we cannot prevent the bycatch of species that rise and fall with ocean currents and changing temperatures.

In the end, the Council and NOAA Fisheries disagree about whether a bycatch problem exists in the drift gillnet fishery. For now, the fishery enjoys a grandfathered status that allows it to discard fifty percent of its catch, claim hundreds of marine mammals per year, and take endangered and threatened sea turtles and marine mammals. We must set our sights on mending the safety net by forging ahead with a more sustainable path for the west coast swordfish fishery. By authorizing deep-set buoy gear that meets high standards for minimizing bycatch, the Pacific Council can lead the way in encouraging fishermen to switch to this highly selective gear and keep indiscriminate drift gillnets out of our oceans.

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