Swordfish Industry Ordered to Stop Killing Endangered Whales and Sea Turtles

Regulators will shut down the fishery in California unless it severely reduces the accidental catch of marine mammals and other animals.
(Photo: Brian Skerry/'National Geographic'/Getty Images)
Sep 15, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Your next serving of California swordfish is about to come without its usual side orders of dead whale, seal, and sea turtle.

Those are just a few of the species routinely swept up and killed in the massive gill nets used to catch swordfish off the California coast. “They’re sending a mile-long, 200-foot-deep net into a biological hot spot of the California ocean ecosystem where the waters are full of top predators like sharks, whales, seals and sea lions,” said Ben Enticknap, senior scientist with Oceana, a nonprofit devoted to ocean conservation. “They catch anything that swims into its path.”

According to Oceana, 61 of every 100 animals caught in the California swordfish industry’s nets are discarded as waste, making it one of the “dirtiest” fisheries in the country.

That’s about to change. Under new rules established this week by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the swordfish fishery risks being shut down if it continues to kill so many imperiled marine species. The council has established what it calls hard caps on allowable bycatch for seven endangered animals: fin whales, humpback whales, sperm whales, leatherback sea turtles, loggerhead sea turtles, olive ridley sea turtles, and green sea turtles. If the industry kills more than two animals from any of those species over the next two years, it will immediately be shuttered. (The council also placed a cap of four kills for endangered short-fin pilot whales and the increasingly uncommon bottlenose dolphin.)

It’s hard to say how many of these imperiled species have been killed by the fishery over the years because only about 20 percent of vessels are monitored by federal officials. A 2014 report from Oceana estimated that approximately 550 marine mammals were entangled or killed during the previous five years.

“For example, in 2010 there were two endangered sperm whales caught in those fisheries,” Enticknap said. “Because observer coverage was so low, they estimated that 15 whales were actually killed. Now with these caps in place, if they catch two sperm whales over a two-year period, they’ll get shut down immediately.”

In addition to the new caps, the council increased the level of federal oversight to 30 percent of vessels through 2018, after which it must be 100 percent. Cameras and other technology are expected to help supplement in-person observation.

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The council also agreed on rules for a wide range of other species commonly caught as bycatch, including manta rays, great white sharks, hammerhead sharks, and megamouth sharks. No firm caps were established, but further management measures are expected to follow if the industry does not reduce its impact on these species.

“We’re thrilled for this action,” Enticknap said. “We’ve been working to change this fishery for years and switch it to a cleaner gear type that can selectively target swordfish.”

He said California is the only state that allows gill nets for swordfish and that harpooning is used in many other states. Oceana is testing the use of buoy nets in California, a technology already used in the Atlantic. “It’s a single line that hangs deep, where swordfish are hanging out," he said. "It’s really clean, and there’s not a lot of bycatch.”

Enticknap said the goal is not to eliminate the swordfish fishery in California but to force it to clean up its act. “We’re trying to give them a pathway to still have a swordfish fishery but have it be clean and sustainable.”