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It’s Time to Stop Drift Gillnet Fishing off the California Coast

The “curtains of death” sweep up whales, dolphins and sea turtles along with the swordfish and sharks they are fishing for

Earlier this week, federal fishery managers imposed emergency measures on the California drift gillnet fleet to protect endangered sperm whales. The action came two years after a pair of endangered sperm whales were killed in a single gillnet in 2010 in deep water west of San Diego.

Mother and baby sperm whalePhoto by Réunion Underwater photographyWhile new federal protections may prevent sperm whale deaths in the short term, they do little to stop the ongoing capture and accidental death of 130 or more marine animals in gillnets every year.

The new measures from the National Marine Fisheries Service require that the swordfish fleet stop fishing for the season if a single endangered sperm whale is seriously injured or killed in a gillnet. All gillnet vessels that fish in deep waters (defined as 6,500 feet) must now carry on-board fishery observers at all times; before now, less than 20 percent of boats carried observers. And, for the first time, the gillnet fleet will be fitted with mandatory vessel monitoring systems that track the locations of every boat.

While these protections may prevent sperm whale deaths in the short term, the new regulations do little to stop the ongoing capture and accidental death of 130 or more other whales, dolphins, sea lions, and marine animals in the gillnet fishery every year. During the past decade, more than 1,300 whales, dolphins, and turtles drowned after getting tangled in California's large-mesh drift gillnets. More than 100,000 giant ocean sunfish and 10,000 blue sharks were also caught and discarded during the last 10 years.

photo of a ray tangled in a net on the deck of a boatNOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service.An Oceanic Manta Ray, (Manta birostris), the largest species of ray the in the world, suffers from
bycatch in the California Drift Gillnet Fishery.

It’s time for this fishing practice to end. Drift gillnets are so deadly to marine life that the gear is banned in Oregon and Washington and on the open ocean. The method should be halted along the entire West Coast.

As long as a mile and invisible to underwater creatures, gillnets are allowed to drift through the rich congregation of marine life that thrives off our shores. A single net can cover over 1 million square feet, equal to the size of twenty-one football fields, and span the length of the Golden Gate Bridge. They are, in effect, “curtains of death.”

California's drift gillnets are set to “soak” in the ocean overnight to catch swordfish and thresher shark. But they also indiscriminately catch and drown any marine animal or fish that accidentally swims into the deadly mesh barrier: whales, dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, sharks, bluefin tuna, ocean sunfish, and dozens of other fish species, even sea birds. Very few are released alive.

The California drift gillnet fishery kills more whales and other marine mammals than any other fishery along the US West Coast and has one of the highest bycatch rates in the country. The gillnet fishery must be phased out once and for all, as a new report, titled “California's Deadliest Catch,” by my organization makes clear.

As much as 80 percent of the sea life caught by the drift gillnets is neither swordfish nor shark but other finfish and marine species. Ultimately, 35 percent of the total finfish catch is kept for sale as seafood and 65 percent discarded overboard, dead and dying.

photo of a large shark hanging in a netNOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service.A Megamouth Shark, (Megachasma pelages), an extremely rare species of
deepwater shark first discovered in 1976, struggles to survive in a driftnet.

In 2001, we won federal protections for endangered leatherback sea turtles from the gillnet fleet with the establishment of the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area. Gillnet fishing is outlawed from August 15 to November 15 from Big Sur to the central Oregon coast and out to the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone. This reduced the number of leatherbacks drowned from 112 in the 10 years before the seasonal closure to two since then.

People in the United States are eating less swordfish and shark because the fish is known to be high in mercury. In fact, the FDA warns women of childbearing age and children never to eat either fish due to risk of mercury poisoning.

Nevertheless, in defiance of longstanding California marine conservation and fishery policies and public health warnings, federal fishery managers and seafood lobbyists continue to push to expand the unsustainable gillnet fishery for swordfish and shark into protected sea turtle habitat and open our coastal waters to swordfish longlining, a high bycatch fishing gear that is currently banned along our coast. We can’t allow this to happen.

After more than a decade of successfully halting destructive fishing initiatives over and over again, Turtle Island Restoration Network is now mobilizing a grassroots campaign to phase out the deadly California drift gillnet fishery once and for all.

Until we win a phase out of gillnet gear along the California coast, I urge you to swear off swordfish and shark until it is caught in ways where the fish doesn’t come with a side helping of endangered whales, sea turtles and other ocean wildlife.

Teri Shore
Teri Shore is program director at the Turtle Island Restoration Network.

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