Entangled: Swordfish, Turtles & More
by Ken Hinman
The Pacific Fishery Management Council recently took a pass on proposals to expand the use of drift entanglement nets off the west coast, opting instead for another year of study. I went to meetings of the federal council in Tacoma, Washington last weekend to testify in favor of phasing-out the nets entirely and replacing them with alternative, “greener” methods of fishing. The council’s decision could be viewed as a tentative step in that direction, but there continues to be enormous pressure to go the other way.
The nets – actually drifting walls of netting about 50 yards deep and up to a mile long – entangle commercially valuable swordfish, their primary target, but also sea turtles and a whole lot more. In 2001, the National Marine Fisheries Service designated federal waters off Oregon and Northern California a Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area (PLCA), where drift netting is prohibited from late summer through the fall to protect critically endangered leatherback turtles that migrate to the coast seasonally to feed on jellyfish.
The fishing industry, of course, wants back in. They propose, with a nod and a wink from NMFS (the agency is desperate to grow our domestic swordfish fishery), to close the PLCA later in the year, open it sooner, shrink it in size or all-of-the-above. The debate at the council boiled down to whether this could be done without further endangering turtles, as the industry and some members of the council’s management team claim, or whether, as I and other conservationists argued, it would increase the risk of encounters between one of the ocean’s deadliest gears and some of its most endangered animals.
The council ultimately agreed that the risks are too high to make any changes now and asked NMFS to come back next year with more information on drift net/turtle interactions in and around the closed area. Meanwhile, council members were “very encouraged” by the reports they heard on developing “an economically feasible, low-bycatch type of gear for swordfish fishing off the west coast” and urged the agency to make this research a priority.
For several years now, Wild Oceans has been promoting a transition away from drift nets and pelagic longlines – gears that fish passively and kill indiscriminately – to safer, more selective fishing methods for swordfish, tuna and other commercial species. One such method is buoy-gear, used by swordfish fishermen in Florida for over a decade, supplying a high-value product with virtually no bycatch. A pilot buoy-gear study is underway in the Gulf of Mexico, where longline bycatch of breeding bluefin is a threat to that overfished tuna’s recovery. In 2011, the Pflegler Institute of Environmental Research (PIER) began trials with swordfish buoy-gear off the California coast.
In a presentation to the council in Tacoma, a PIER researcher said the gear holds promise for providing an economically-attractive alternative to drift nets, without the bycatch.
Turtles are far from the only species caught in drift nets. Among the vulnerable and/or protected species routinely entangled are a number of species of sharks, striped marlin, bluefin tuna, several species of dolphin and whales, and even elephant seals.
Drift nets are an anachronistic fishing gear that’s on its way out everywhere. In fact, by allowing drift netting to continue off the west coast, the council is on the wrong side of history. The United Nations banned large-scale drift nets on the high seas twenty years ago. Since then, the U.S. has banned drift nets of any size in our east coast fisheries, including for swordfish, and we supported a ban at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. The European Union banned drift netting among its 27 member states in 2002.
In my testimony, I noted a Memorandum of Understanding signed last November by the U.S. and Morocco, which ended widespread drift netting for swordfish in 2012. Under the MOU, we are helping that nation’s fishermen move from drift nets to buoy-gear. I read from the U.S. statement announcing the agreement: “If effective in Moroccan fisheries, this gear type potentially offers a small-scale, high-yield, locally supplied solution as an alternative to drift nets. By sharing this technology, we can support Morocco’s efforts to eradicate drift nets, an action that has many benefits for the marine environment.”
Read that last sentence again. “That’s our position, clearly and unequivocally,” I told the council, “and it should be yours, too.”