September 1st, 2016. Monterey, CA — Today the Pacific Loggerhead Conservation Area — a 25,000 square mile closure off Southern California to protect endangered sea turtles during El Niño years — re-opens to mile-long swordfish drift gillnets without necessary protections in place to reduce entanglement of sea turtles and marine mammals. With the fishery now entering peak season, threatened and endangered species are more vulnerable to capture, injury and death by this indiscriminate fishing gear.
In September last year, the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) voted to adopt hard caps to protect nine marine mammal and sea turtle species caught as bycatch in the swordfish drift gillnet fishery, and to increase observer coverage in the fishery to 100 percent by 2018. The hard caps will trigger a two-year closure of the fishery if and when any limit on injured or killed sea turtles, whales, or dolphins is reached. However, nearly a year after the Council decision the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has yet to release even proposed regulations. This means hard caps are unlikely to be in place this fishing season. Further, last season’s fishery occurred with the lowest observer coverage in a decade — just 11 percent — adding huge uncertainty to bycatch reports. With fewer eyes on the water to record what is actually being caught and thrown back overboard, much of the bycatch is unaccounted for—a particular worry for protecting rare, threatened, and endangered species.
“NMFS must follow the Council’s recommendation and implement hard caps on bycatch in the swordfish drift gillnet fishery,” said Mariel Combs, Pacific Counsel for Oceana. “Every day of delay puts vulnerable sea turtles and whales at unacceptable risk.”
In addition, the PFMC has deferred considerations to authorize new, cleaner fishing gears to catch swordfish until fall of 2017. Called buoy gear, this new gear configuration is shown to be profitable and effective at catching swordfish with significantly lower bycatch relative to drift gillnets. In fact, during several years of experimental fishing there were few discarded animals and no interactions with species of concern like whales, dolphins, or sea turtles. More detailed information about buoy gear can be found here (link)
“Swordfish drift gillnets remain a shameful California fishery, among the dirtiest and most harmful to ocean wildlife in the nation,” said Geoff Shester, California Campaign Director for Oceana. “It is time fishery managers quit dragging their feet and transition to the proven clean, profitable methods to provide local swordfish that Californians can be proud of.”
The drift gillnet fishery is the only fishery off the U.S. West Coast that NMFS ranks as Category I in its List of Fisheries — a designation reserved for fisheries with high mortality to marine mammals. Despite the fact that the fishery is known to be lethal to protected marine mammal species, this Sunday, September 4, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) permits that allow drift gillnet fishermen to incidentally take endangered sperm and humpback whales will expire, and NMFS will be operating this fishery without valid MMPA and Endangered Species Act authorizations.
More info (source)
Until the 1980s, fishermen who fished for swordfish off the coast of California used harpoon guns to reel in their prey. As the industry modernized, the guns were exchanged for drift gillnets—gigantic nets the size of the Golden Gate Bridge that hang vertically in the water. By 1985, the catch reached a historic high, with fishermen landing more than 2,000 metric tons of fish. But there was a tragic and underdiscussed consequence of that approach.
A drift gillnet catches far more than just the target fish. It scoops up any marine animal unfortunate enough to swim in its path, including whales, dolphins and other marine mammals like seals and sea lions. Turtles, sharks, fish and even seabirds are also, inadvertently, trapped and killed by these nets. No surprise that environmentalists have dubbed them “invisible curtains of death.” But what may be surprising to many is that California is the last state in the nation to permit this destructive and unsustainable fishing method.