Blog Tags: California
Here’s a very simple way to protect marine life—keep drift gillnets out of California waters. Fishermen use this fishing gear to target swordfish and thresher sharks, but they also catch and kill dozens of other important marine species. In 2011, for every five swordfish the fishery landed, one marine mammal was killed and six fish—including sharks and tunas—were tossed overboard dead or dying.
On November 18, 2013, our team in the Pacific sent a letter to NOAA Fisheries requesting photos of marine life drowned in drift gillnets off the coast of California. We already knew that each year over a hundred marine mammals are killed by drift gillnets, mile-long fishing nets set below the water’s surface to catch swordfish and thresher sharks in the area. Animals big and small—whales, dolphins, sea turtles, sea lions—are caught in these walls of mesh and often drown, and Oceana wanted to bring forward any photographic proof of gillnets’ damage.
Pacific leatherbacks need our help more than ever. Despite being listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1970 their population is currently declining at 6% per year. If this trend continues we could lose these magnificent turtles in 20 years.
In response to Governor Brown’s signing of Assembly Bill 1776, which designates the endangered leatherback sea turtle as California's official state reptile and designates October 15 as Leatherback Conservation Day, state and federal agencies have been encouraged to build cooperative relationships with the Western Pacific island nations, where Pacific leatherback sea turtles return from California waters to nest. This fall, from October 14-17th, political leaders from Indonesia and the United States will meet with notable marine and leatherback scientific experts to discuss the status of the species, the population, international conservation efforts, current conservation efforts in both countries, and socio-economic research of conservation.
We are alarmed by the recent decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) not to provide needed protections for U.S. West Coast great white sharks under the federal Endangered Species Act. NMFS declined protections despite current science estimates of only a few hundred sub-adult and adult white sharks at their primary aggregation sites. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) petition submitted by Oceana and its partners to NMFS met all the legal criteria and demonstrated through the best available science that this special population of great white sharks clearly warrants protections under the ESA.
Let's start with the good news: As of yesterday, July 1, California's shark fin ban (passed in 2011) officially came into effect! California grocers that stocked shark fins and restaurants that offered shark fin soup on the menu had 18 months to move their product. During the 18 month interim, the Los Angeles Times reports that one San Gabriel Valley restaurant specializing in the delicacy shut down, while several retailers in Chinatown bemoaned the large stock of shark fins still at hand.
We can breathe a momentary sigh of relief. This Monday, the Pacific Fishery Management Council voted unanimously to maintain protections off California and Oregon for the critically endangered population of Pacific leatherback sea turtles. However, in 2014 these federal fishery managers will consider another proposal for allowing driftnets into sea turtle habitat southwest of Monterey, California.
At the meeting a few days ago in Tacoma, Washington, the Council considered a full array of proposals to expand the use of drift gillnets off California and Oregon and into an area currently designated to protect Pacific leatherback sea turtles. But Oceana—with the help of our partners, and support of our avid Wavemakers—successfully thwarted those efforts by presenting new science on the decline of leatherback sea turtles; by revealing scientific data showing massive wasteful bycatch of large whales, dolphins, sharks, and other fish by the drift gillnet fishery; and by bringing forward the public uproar over the proposed expansion of the driftnet fishery into a currently protected area.
Mile-long drift nets hang like invisible curtains in the water column to catch swordfish, but they unselectively entangle other marine life traversing through the open ocean. To numerically paint the portrait of this wasteful fishery, for every five swordfish caught in 2011, one marine mammal was killed and six fish were tossed back dead. When it comes to whales, this fishery takes many species, but one of particular concern is the sperm whale. The largest of the toothed whales, sperm whales have the largest brain of any animal and it is estimated that 16 of these amazing endangered whales were taken in the drift gillnet fishery in 2010 alone.
An endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle swims through the cold, nutrient-rich waters off California where it has made an impressive journey from its nesting beaches in Indonesia to feed on jellyfish. But, it encounters an unwelcome surprise, a mile long drift net in which its flipper becomes entangled.
Because this net sits overnight in the water column to catch its targeted commercial species, swordfish and thresher sharks, this net will not be pulled up until the following morning. In the meantime, the sea turtle is unable to surface for air and drowns. The drift gillnet fishery takes, on average, 138 marine mammals per year including sperm whales, humpback whales, pilot whales, minke whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions—not to mention thousands of sharks and other fish. The vast majority of those animals are dumped back into the ocean, dead or injured.
Due to concerns over bycatch resulting from the use of drift gillnets, Washington and Oregon have prohibited fishermen in their state from using these destructive nets off their coast. This leaves California as the only west coast state still allowing this deadly gear.
It’s official; as of today, California’s great white sharks are now fully protected under the California Endangered Species Act! As new candidates for protection under this law, while the state of California considers permanent actions, the ocean’s most iconic sharks will now receive the exact same legal protections afforded to other listed endangered species, placing them in the company of the furry sea otter and the majestic blue whale. As of today, it is now a criminal offense to pursue, catch, or kill a white shark in California. With recent population estimates of fewer than 350 adult white sharks, this action may be just in time to keep them from extinction.
The main threat to great whites is incidental capture in drift and set gillnets which together target swordfish, thresher sharks, halibut, and white seabass. Since the 1980s there has been an average of over 10 reported interactions of great white sharks in these gillnets annually, and up to 30 reports in a single year. The number of observers who go out to sea on these fishing vessels and document bycatch is currently very low, so we don’t know the full extent of this bycatch. Also of concern is what scientists call post-release mortality. While some great whites are released from gillnet capture alive, others die shortly after from severe damage inflicted to their organs and internal bleeding. Bycatch in fisheries, under-reporting, and post-release mortality, in culmination with a low population size, slow growth, and a low reproductive rate could be enough to jeopardize the recovery of the unique population of great white sharks off California.
Do you know what you are serving your family tonight? If it’s fish there’s a good chance that you don’t.
Today Oceana unveiled its landmark national seafood fraud report, one of the largest of its kind and one that should make consumers sit up and demand change.
Over the past several years Oceana tested 1,215 fish samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states. DNA testing confirmed that fully one-third of this seafood was mislabeled—that is, what we ordered wasn’t what we got.
No matter where you live, seafood fraud is likely to be an issue. But if you live in Austin, Houston or Boston, it is especially widespread. According to our investigation, almost half of the fish tested in these cities was mislabeled. In Southern California the problem was even worse, with mislabeled fish accounting for more than half (52%) of the seafood we tested! Elsewhere, rates of mislabeling were found to be 39 percent in New York City, 38 percent in Northern California and South Florida, 36 percent in Denver, 35 percent in Kansas City, 32 percent in Chicago, 26 percent in Washington, D.C., 21 percent in Portland and 18 percent in Seattle. Nationwide, sushi restaurants mislabeled their fish 74 percent of the time.
As one of our scientists told me, these findings are disturbing—and they’re disturbing for a few reasons. Not only can seafood fraud rip you off by making you pay more for less expensive fish but it can actually be bad for your health. Our scientists found that some fish that had landed a spot on the FDA’s “DO NOT EAT” list for sensitive groups such as pregnant women and children because of its high mercury content was nonetheless being substituted for safer fish. In New York this meant tilefish disguised as red snapper and halibut, while in South Florida king mackerel became grouper. Elsewhere escolar, an oily fish that is known for its purgative effects in some consumers, was substituted 84% of the time for white tuna
If that wasn’t bad enough, mislabeling can be harmful to the oceans as well. By disguising one species as another, it can be nearly impossible for consumers to make responsible decisions to avoid eating overfished species.
So what can you do about it? Right now the United States imports more than 90 percent of the seafood it consumes, but the FDA inspects less than one percent of that seafood specifically for fraud. Obviously this needs to change and we need to call upon our lawmakers to ensure full traceability for all seafood sold in the country. Oceana is hard at work behind the scenes to make this happen. In the meantime, if you don’t want to be duped by seafood fraud you can start by asking where and how your seafood was caught, be wary of fish that seems cheaper than it should and, when possible, buy fish whole.
Seafood is one of the healthiest sources of protein on the planet and should be a part of any healthy diet, but we need to know that what we’re buying is what the label says it is—for the good of our health, our wallets and our oceans.
Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana
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