By Justine E. Hausheer
Marine animals don’t die in nets—they suffocate. As fish swim through the net, the cords slip behind their gills and trap them in the mesh. There they wait. Unable to pass water through their gills and absorb oxygen, they slowly suffocate. Whales die differently, although their end is no less gruesome. With their flukes and fins tangled in swaths of weighted netting, they’re unable to reach the surface to breath. Slowly, they run out of oxygen and asphyxiate.
As many as sixteen sperm whales suffered this fate off the coast of California in 2010, according to estimates from the federal government. Caught in drift gillnets, the whales died alongside thousands of other marine creatures caught as bycatch— incidental casualties of California’s swordfish fishery. Oceana is fighting to replace drift gillnets with cleaner gear, protecting sperm whales and other marine life from an unnecessary death.
Drift gillnets are known by another name in conservation circles: “walls of death.” Set out by fisherman in the evening, these mile-long nets drift through the night, catching open ocean animals that swim into the fine mesh. “These nets are designed to kill large animals, and whether it’s a swordfish or a whale, the net does its job,” says Ben Enticknap, Oceana’s Pacific campaign manager and senior scientist.
The California drift gillnet swordfish fishery is surprisingly small—an estimated 25 boats in 2013. Yet despite its small size, this fishery has one of the highest bycatch rates in the country, says Susan Murray, deputy vice president of Oceana Pacific. It’s also one of the top killers of whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals on the U.S. West Coast. Data from federal government observers for the last five years reveals that for every two swordfish the fishery catches to sell, on average one blue shark, four ocean sunfish, and many other species are caught as bycatch.
“These levels of bycatch are extreme,” says Murray. “We would never tolerate this level of waste in any other fishery.”
Best known for their title role in Melville’s Moby Dick, sperm whales live up to the literary legend. They’re the largest toothed predators on earth—males can grow nearly 60 feet long and weigh up to 50 tons. Prized for their oil-rich blubber and the hundreds of gallons of spermaceti oil found inside their cavernous heads, sperm whales were the specialty catch of generations of New England whalers. The end of commercial whaling in the 1980s allowed populations to recover, and between 750 and 1,000 sperm whales now reside off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California.
While examining bycatch data for the drift gillnet fishery, Enticknap noticed that onboard observers reported that drift gillnets killed two endangered sperm whales in 2010. He realized that the local swordfish fleet did not have legally-required authorizations from the Natural Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) allowing it to conduct fishing that might harass, harm, or kill sperm whales.
After Oceana and other conservation organizations confronted NMFS about these deaths, the agency prepared a Biological Opinion study to determine just how harmful this fishery is for the local sperm whale population. NMFS estimated that the drift gillnet fishery could have a serious effect on the population. But then, Murray says, the agency ignored its findings and gave the fishery the go-ahead to continue fishing.
Oceana countered, raising public awareness and encouraging their supporters to protest. NMFS then backtracked, Murray says, refusing to issue the necessary permits and implementing a series of emergency restrictions for the remainder of the season. The fishery will close if the fleet catches just one sperm whale, and all drift gillnet vessels are required to have GPS monitoring systems. If those vessels fish in waters deeper than 2,000 meters, where sperm whales are commonly found, they must also have an independent onboard observer present to document what the fisherman catch.
“As an interim measure for this fishery, this is extraordinary,” says Murray. But she notes that these measures will expire at the end of this fishing season, and further action is needed to protect sperm whales and other non-target species killed by drift gillnets. “Our goal is to phase out this gear,” Murray says, “which will either require legislation in California or action by the Pacific Fishery Management Council.” A precedent exists in Washington and Oregon, which banned their fishing vessels from landing swordfish caught by drift gillnets in 1989 and 2000. Oceana’s goal is to introduce legislation in 2014 to end the use of drift gillnets in the swordfish fishery.
“We’re not going to be done until drift gillnets are off the water,” adds Enticknap.