(Photo: David Loh/Reuters)

Environmentalists Move to Stop Fishing Nets From Drowning Endangered Whales

Three conservation groups accuse the U.S. government of failing to protect marine mammals caught in mile-long gill nets.
Sep 18, 2014· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Three environmental groups have put the U.S. government on notice that they will file a lawsuit to force a ban on drift gill net fishing off the California coast, a practice that can ensnare and kill whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and other marine life.

The group Oceana, along with the Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network, sent a 60-day notice of intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for not adopting permanent measures to protect endangered sperm whales.

California gill nets killed an estimated 16 sperm whales in 2010, the groups contend, exceeding the maximum number of deaths the sperm whale population can sustain and still recover.

Drift gill nets are mile-long nets laid across the water overnight to catch swordfish and thresher sharks. Environmentalists call them “curtains of death,” as they also trap marine mammals and sea turtles.

“Every year that drift gillnets are used off the California coast to catch swordfish, the result is that iconic whales, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, and thousands of fish are ensnared and killed as bycatch,” Geoff Shester, Oceana’s California campaign director, said in a statement. “Ultimately this gear type must be fully prohibited off the West Coast so we can have a sustainable swordfish fishery.”

More than 650 marine mammals have been killed by gill net fishing off the California coast since 2001, according to the environmental groups.

The California fishery in dispute stretches from the Mexican border to San Francisco and about 150 miles out to sea.

Earlier this month, Oceana sent a letter to the Pacific Fishery Management Council, an advisory board to NMFS, demanding that the agency adhere to regulations under the Marine Mammal Protection Act requiring fisheries to “reduce incidental mortality and serious injury of marine mammals to insignificant levels approaching a zero.”

Drift gill nets are efficient killers. While some large whales manage to break free, the nets can entangle their fins and flukes, creating considerable drag that depletes energy reserves.

The groups are calling on NMFS to reduce bycatch by requiring more selective fishing methods and accurate reporting of bycatch.

Swordfish can be caught with harpoons, a method that creates zero bycatch, according to Oceana.

The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations did not respond to a request for comment.

At a meeting on Monday, the Pacific Fishery Management Council debated proposals to impose “hard caps” on the number of endangered marine species that are injured or killed by the industry.

“They want to incentivize fishermen to take measures to avoid bycatches, which may lead to more innovations for how they fish,” said Mark Helvey, NMFS West Coast program director for highly migratory species.

Another option is to close down the fishery for the remainder of the swordfish season, from roughly September to January, if numbers exceed targets. The council is set to deliver a final recommendation in March.

For now, catching unintended marine species in gill nets is technically legal.

Helvey said the death of endangered or threatened marine mammals species, such as sperm and humpback whales, from gill nets was rare. California fishermen, he added, are required to place pingers on the nets. “They deter animals, which become aware that something is ahead,” he said. Nets must also be placed 36 feet below the surface to allow animals to swim over them.

That doesn’t satisfy conservationists.

“These nets have become a death trap for many species beyond swordfish,” said Catherine Kilduff of the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s time to start looking for less lethal ways to fish.”