Posts Tagged Gillnet Fishery

Jun 15 2017

Controversial drift-gill net fishery wins long-fought battle

Federal fishery managers denied a proposal this week to immediately shut down Southern California’s most controversial fishery in the event that wide-mesh gill nets accidentally kill a handful of certain marine mammals or sea turtle species.

The swordfish and thresher shark fishery will remain open, even if it kills several whales or sea turtles, the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries decided.

The decision not to institute so-called hard caps on the fishery comes after a public review period initiated last year was extended to discuss the law proposed by the state’s Pacific Fishery Management Council in 2014.

For the few dozen fishers who still catch swordfish and thresher sharks off Southern California in deep-water drift gill nets, the decision brought a big sigh of relief.

“It’s a great feeling to know that NOAA is using science and not political pressure to decide this issue,” said longtime local fisherman David Haworth. “We have just a few people fighting against millions of environmentalists who think taking one of anything is too many: That would be great, but we have to feed the whole world.”

The decision was a blow to Oceana, The Pew Charitable Trusts and other conservation groups that have lobbied for years to close the fishery.

“We’re disappointed that NOAA Fisheries decided to abandon these plans. It’s a long time coming,” said Paul Shively, project director for The Pew Charitable Trusts. “We did a poll (in 2015) that showed overwhelming support with Californians to shut down the fishery.

“This still remains the most harmful fishery on the West Coast when it comes to marine mammals and sea turtles.”

Existing protections working

The proposed hard caps would have forced a seasonal closure if gill nets killed two sea turtles or fin, humpback or sperm whales, or four short-fin pilot whales or bottlenose dolphin over a two-year period.

In 2015, 18 drift gill net vessels landed 66 metric tons of swordfish worth $454,000, according to a report by NOAA — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Meanwhile, the U.S. imported 8,386 metric tons of the fish from other countries.

Fishers and National Marine Fisheries Service regulators say protections they’ve instituted since the mid-1990s, when drift gill nets were indiscriminately killing tons of marine animals, have come a long way.

“We increased our net size and that helped (reduce bycatch) a lot,” Haworth said. “What’s very discouraging for us right now is that most marine mammal species are on the increase now. They wanted to shut us down over animals that are doing better. So, it was like, ‘What’s going on here?’ ”

NOAA fishery biologist Jim Carretta, who specializes in creating marine mammal protections, said regulations implemented since the 1990s have greatly reduced gill net damage.

Gill nets are now made with wider mesh to allow larger animals to escape, and are placed 36 feet below the ocean’s surface to avoid marine mammal interaction. They also have acoustic pingers that divert dolphins and other species.

“If you have a bycatch problem, you don’t immediately shut down the entire fishery. You start examining what factors are driving the problem,” Carretta said. “We’ve had great success in reducing bycatch in this fishery. But it’s not going to go to zero.”

Regulators and fishers are also testing new technologies to bring additional protections for bycatch, such as a new deep-set buoy gear and electronic observers on boats to monitor catches.

State Sen. Ben Allen, whose district includes much of the South Bay coast, proposed a bill last year that would hasten the use of deep-set buoy gear and ban gill nets. It remains in committee.

“We already have allowable take numbers for these marine mammals,” Carretta said. “The hard cap levels seemed arbitrary to me. They were not thoroughly steeped in the science behind calculating how much bycatch is sustainable.”

The Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act also continue to set protections for vulnerable marine animals that were hunted to near-extinction.

‘Redheaded stepchild of fishing’

Mike Conroy, president of West Coast Fisheries Consultants that represents fishers, said he believes the rule would have been overturned in the courts if it had passed.

“Twenty years ago, the drift gill net fishery was the Wild West, but I can’t even remember the last time a turtle was caught,” Conroy said. “(The proposed rule) probably wasn’t enforceable anyway.”

Gary Burke, a veteran drift gill net fisher, also said he hasn’t seen a sea turtle in years.

But Shively questioned whether environmentalists can rely on the word of fishers whose livelihood depends on keeping the fishery opened. He advocates for having observers on board every fishing boat to ensure they’re accurately reporting bycatch. Regulators say that’s not feasible.

“We’re been the redheaded stepchild of fishing,” Burke said. “All fisheries have bycatch. But we’ve done great jobs to limit what we can. We are going to have some, but the question is whether we’re killing too many. That’s why NOAA takes estimates and decides how many can be removed to maintain healthy populations.”

Originally posted:

Jun 15 2017

Two Decades Later, Focused Efforts on Reducing Entanglements in Gillnet Fishery Still Paying Off

June 2017

In the early 1990s the drift gillnet fishery targeting swordfish off the U.S. West Coast took a high toll on whales, sea turtles and dolphins, with the drifting nets entangling and killing hundreds of these protected species each year. It was clear that management action was needed to reduce entanglements.


Swordfish. Photo: copyright William Boyce

In 1996, NOAA Fisheries convened a “take reduction team,” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The team brought together scientists, fishermen, representatives of environmental organizations, and others to develop strategies that would reduce the entanglements. Those strategies included net modifications and sound-emitting devices.

The recommendations of the Pacific Offshore Cetacean Take Reduction Team (POCTRT) quickly reduced entanglements, as documented by observers aboard fishing vessels in the late 90s. Today, some 25 years later, the drift gillnet fishery that catches swordfish, opah, and some sharks off the West Coast continues to have low impacts on protected species; it entangles very few whales, sea turtles, and dolphins.

Source: Carretta, J.V., J.E. Moore, and K.A. Forney. 2017. Regression tree and ratio estimates of marine mammal, sea turtle, and seabird bycatch in the California drift gillnet fishery: 1990-2015. NOAA Technical Memorandum, NOAA-TM-NMFS-SWFSC-568. 83p. Available online at


Source: Carretta, J.V., J.E. Moore, and K.A. Forney. 2017. Regression tree and ratio estimates of marine mammal, sea turtle, and seabird bycatch in the California drift gillnet fishery: 1990-2015. NOAA Technical Memorandum, NOAA-TM-NMFS-SWFSC-568. 83p. Available online at

“This fishery has made great improvements in the last two decades,” said Barry Thom, Regional Administrator of NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “If you look at the numbers of whales, turtles, and dolphins affected, they have all declined over the years and remain very low today.”

For instance, the drift gillnet fishery killed or seriously injured almost 20 endangered leatherback turtles per year in some years in the early 1990s. Now leatherback deaths and injuries are rare, with an estimate of just one since 2009. An estimated 50 beaked whales were injured or killed in drift gillnets in some years in the early 1990s, but estimates now show just one seriously injured or killed since 2002.

Humpback whales are among the most common whales off California but estimates show none have been killed or seriously injured in drift gillnets since 2008.

Improvements in the fishery include pingers, which are devices that emit sounds to warn marine mammals away from the gillnets; and net extenders that lower the nets at least 36 feet beneath the surface, leaving room for surface-swimming animals such as dolphins to pass above them. In addition, the agency designated two large conservation areas off the West Coast that are off-limits to drift gillnets when endangered sea turtles are known to frequent the areas.

Above: A large area of ocean off the coast of California and Oregon is off limits to drift gillnet fishing each year to protect endangered leatherback sea turtles.  Another area off southern California is closed during El Nino years (as determined by NOAA Fisheries) when water temperatures are warmer than average and loggerhead sea turtles are likely to be present.

The improvements have helped the drift gillnet fishery off the West Coast provide a local and sustainable domestic source of seafood with less environmental impact than many alternatives, including swordfish from some foreign fisheries that take a greater toll on marine mammals and sea turtles. After years of adaptive management to reduce the fishery’s impacts, the drift gillnet fishery now has impacts on protected species comparable to other U.S. fisheries, including the U.S. Atlantic swordfish longline fishery, which is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Improvements in the fishery have been recognized by others, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program that considers swordfish and most other species caught with drift gillnets on the West Coast a “good alternative” for consumers.

“Although sea turtle interactions used to be an issue in this fishery, management measures put into place in 2001 have greatly reduced these incidental encounters,” Seafood Watch said in a recent update of its ratings for swordfish from the West Coast drift gillnet fishery.

While the improvements have been substantial, fishery managers continue to look for additional ways to harvest swordfish with even less impact. The Pacific Fishery Management Council and NOAA Fisheries have encouraged research into new fishing methods such as deep-set buoy gear, which in early trials has proven to catch swordfish with almost no bycatch of non-marketable fish or impacts on protected species.

NOAA Fisheries is also collaborating with industry and co-managers on the West Coast to reduce impacts of other fisheries on large whales off the West Coast.

“We’re always looking for opportunities to reduce impacts on whales, sea turtles, and other protected species,” said Chris Yates, Assistant Administrator for Protected Species in NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “Fortunately we have built good partnerships, and we’ve made substantial progress.”

LEARN MORE about the fishery and recent management actions

LEARN MORE about North Pacific swordfish harvest and sustainability at FishWatch

WATCH a short movie about efforts in West Coast fisheries to protect sea turtles and marine mammals

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