Earlier this week, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) reinstated emergency protections for sperm whales from California’s swordfish and thresher shark fishery, which protects these magnificent whales from accidentally being caught in drift gillnet gear. The agency will now require independent observers on all vessels in deep offshore waters where sperm whales are frequently observed, and require that all vessels carry satellite monitoring systems to ensure they’re avoiding areas off limits to drift gillnets.
Most notably, NMFS will shut down California’s drift gillnet swordfish fishery if a single sperm whale is killed or injured by these destructive nets. These regulations renew emergency measures instated last summer after extensive campaigning by Oceana and our conservation allies, the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network, to protect marine mammals and other sea life unintentionally caught by this wasteful gear.
“We commend NMFS for taking steps to protect sperm whales, but the continued use of drift gillnets off California is a black eye on the face of sustainable ocean management,” said Ben Enticknap, Oceana Pacific Campaign Manager and Senior Scientist. “Wherever these nets are used off our coast, they catch and kill dolphins, whales, seals and sea lions, and countless numbers of sharks and other fish are also caught and discarded.”
This year’s safeguard will last through August 5, at which point NMFS has committed to finalizing a permanent rule for sperm whale protection. The announcement in the federal register can be accessed here.
In 2010, two sperm whales were observed caught in a drift gillnet off southern California. Given the low amount of observers on vessels, NMFS estimated a total of 16 sperm whales were likely taken and with the vast majority unreported. Of the two observed sperm whale takes, one whale was dead on arrival and the other seriously injured and not likely to have survived. Whales that break free from fishing nets but swim away with entangling netting usually suffer a slow death, often succumbing to disease, infection, or starvation.
Drift gillnets, sometimes referred to as “walls of death,” have extremely high rates of bycatch (unintended catch), also trapping sharks, whales, dolphins, sea lions, and sea turtles. Over the past six years, the fishery discarded about 61 percent of the animals it caught. Because of the high bycatch of rare and endangered species, Oceana is calling on NMFS and the regional Pacific Fishery Management Council to eliminate wasteful drift gillnets from the swordfish fishery and replace them with more sustainable fishing practices. Our advocacy reached a pivotal point this spring when the Pacific Fishery Management Council turned its long-running conversation of expanding the use of drift gillnets to now developing cleaner gears that will drastically reduce the alarming bycatch currently taking place. To learn more about Oceana’s fight to protect sperm whales, read this story from the winter 2013 issue of Oceana magazine.