Today the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced emergency actions designed to protect endangered sperm whales from being caught in the California swordfish/thresher shark drift gillnet fishery. The emergency rule, prompted by advocacy by conservation groups goes into effect tomorrow and comes 20 days after the drift gillnet fishing season opened, despite a request from the Pacific Fishery Management Council on April 1 to implement the rules by May 1, when the fishery opened this year. The previous emergency regulations expired on January 31, 2014.
“These emergency regulations offer some temporary relief to endangered sperm whales, yet the ultimate solution is to rid the West Coast of destructive drift gillnets altogether,” said Oceana California Campaign Director Dr. Geoff Shester.
Most notably, the regulations state that NMFS will shut down California’s drift gillnet swordfish fishery if a single endangered sperm whale is killed or injured by the destructive nets. The rule requires independent observers on all drift gillnet vessels operating in offshore waters deeper than 6,500 feet (2,000 meters), where sperm whales are most often observed. The conservation measures will be enforced by requiring fishing vessels to carry vessel monitoring systems that track the real-time locations of all drift gillnet vessels off the U.S. West Coast. The announcement in the federal register can be accessed here.
These mile-long driftnets are a deadly trap for endangered sperm whales and other marine mammals so we’re glad they’re getting these emergency protections,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But this problem needs a long-term fix. Permanent rules, if not a complete ban on these destructive nets, are long overdue.”
"This wasteful driftnet fishery is always in crisis and the emergency never stops for whales, dolphins and fish that die by the hundreds," said Teri Shore, Program Director, Turtle Island Restoration Network. "It's time to ban this gear instead of constant regulatory triage."
The emergency actions will last through August 5, when the agency has committed to finalize a permanent rule for sperm whale protection. Two endangered sperm whales were observed entangled (one dead and the other seriously injured) in a drift gillnet in October 2010 off southern California and the agency estimates that 16 were caught given many vessels do not have observers on board. In September 2012 Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Turtle Island Restoration Network filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue for violations of the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act related to the capture of sperm whales in drift gillnets. In 2013 federal fisheries regulators said they would deny a marine mammal “take” permit for the fishery without measures to reduce the risk of whale entanglements in the future. The emergency rule is intended to put the agency back into compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, as in recent years the drift gillnet swordfish fishery caught and killed sperm whales in excess of Potential Biological Removal limits (the maximum number of deaths that the population can sustain and still recover).
Fishing for swordfish and thresher sharks with drift gillnets involves setting mile-long nets at dusk that drift freely where fish, sharks, turtles, and marine mammals feed or migrate during the night. Subsequently the fishery entangles and discards more marine life than it keeps, making this fishery among the deadliest in the nation for marine mammals.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council, the advisory body to NMFS, will meet June 22 in Garden Grove, CA to discuss transitioning the drift gillnet fishery to other, more sustainable gear types. Oceana, CBD, and TIRN are seeking swift and definitive action to establish a date-certain permanent prohibition on drift gillnet fishing gear off the U.S. West Coast as well as a plan to replace drift gillnets with sustainable ways of catching swordfish in order to properly address the atrocious bycatch currently taking place in the fishery.
Oceana is the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans. Oceana wins policy victories for the oceans using science-based campaigns. Since 2001, we have protected over 1.2 million square miles of ocean and innumerable sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and other sea creatures. More than 600,000 supporters have already joined Oceana. Global in scope, Oceana has offices in North, South and Central America and Europe. To learn more, please visit www.oceana.org.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 775,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
Turtle Island Restoration Network’s mission is to protect and restore endangered sea turtles and marine biodiversity worldwide in ways that incorporate the ecological needs of marine species and the economic needs of local communities, both of which share our common marine environment. We accomplish our mission through grassroots and policy‐maker education, consumer empowerment, strategic litigation and by promoting sustainable local, national and international marine policies. See www.SeaTurtles.org