Today, leaders from the California Assembly and Senate sent a letter to federal fishery managers calling for an end to the use of drift gillnets off the west coast and a transition to clean alternative fishing methods to catch swordfish. The letter was signed by Assemblymembers Marc Levine (D-San Rafael), Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay), Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), and Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara, Chair of Natural Resources Committee), and Senate Majority Leader Bill Monning (D-Carmel).
“Lawmakers continue to be concerned about the use of gillnets. We need a swordfish fishery transition plan that results in the eventual end to the use of gillnets,” said Marc Levine (D-San Rafael) and chair of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee. “One California gillnet swordfish fishery kills more dolphins and whales than all other West Coast and Alaskan fisheries combined and throws away more fish than it keeps. This is unacceptable and must stop. We call on state and federal regulators to act quickly.”
The letter was sent to the Pacific Fishery Management Council and National Marine Fisheries Service, the managers who oversee this fishery which generally takes place in ocean waters offshore of Southern California. For this particular fishery, the California legislature currently has authority over all remaining drift gillnet permits. Recognizing the indiscriminate nature of this gear and horrific bycatch rates, Washington and Oregon do not allow their fishermen to use this gear, leaving California the only state in the nation allowing this fishing method to catch swordfish. Often referred to as “walls of death” due to high levels of bycatch, drift gillnets are banned in many parts of the world including all international waters and in the Mediterranean Sea. According to National Marine Fisheries Service data, the California drift gillnet fishery targeting swordfish and thresher sharks kills more cetaceans annually than all other fisheries on the West Coast combined.
“Oceana commends the California Assembly and Senate leaders for taking a stand for the benefit of our ocean wildlife and California’s reputation as a producer of sustainable seafood”, said California Campaign Director Geoff Shester. “It’s time for fishery managers to transition away from destructive drift gillnets that have no place off California, and pave the way for responsible fishing methods.”
Clean alternative fishing gears, such as harpoons have been used for centuries to catch swordfish without any bycatch, and recent experiments with new methods such as deep-set buoy gear off California funded by the Ocean Protection Council have already shown promise as profitable, low bycatch alternatives. In March 2014, the Pacific Fishery Management Council committed to a goal of transitioning the fishery to a suite of more sustainable methods; however, without a definitive transition plan that includes an eventual prohibition on drift gillnets, the future remains unclear. In March 2015, the Pacific Fishery Management Council is scheduled to take final action to establish “hard caps” on the total number of whales, dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, sharks and other fish that can be killed as bycatch. If such hard caps were reached or exceeded in any fishing season, the fishery would be shut down for the remainder of the season. While these would be important interim measures, the ultimate solution is to move away from drift gillnets.
According to fishery observer data from the National Marine Fisheries Service, over the past seven years, the drift gillnet fishery for swordfish has captured, injured and killed over 650 marine mammals including gray whales, short-finned pilot whales, sperm whales, minke whales, bottlenose dolphins, long-beaked common dolphins, Northern right whale dolphins, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, short-beaked common dolphins, California sea lions and Northern elephant seals. The fishery throws away over half of all fish they catch in the nets, including large sharks, marlins, and ocean sunfish, and Oceana earlier this year deemed it among to the dirtiest fisheries in the nation. Fishery observers monitored 34% of the drift gillnet sets made last year, and documented that the fishery killed an estimated 3 California gray whales, 6 short-finned pilot whales, 9 Northern right whale dolphins, 9 California sea lions and 26 short-beaked common dolphins. The total estimated take of short-finned pilot whales (6) exceed sustainable conservation limits for this marine mammal as established under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (Potential Biological Removal = 4.6 short-finned pilot whales per year). This fishery kills more whales and dolphins than any other fishery off the U.S. West Coast and Alaska. The National Marine Fisheries Service recently allowed the lapse of emergency regulations to protect sperm whales from drift gillnets, and the fishery is currently operating without valid marine mammal take permits.