U.S. Authorities Regulate Drift Gillnets off California Coast

U.S. authorities recently made an historic move to protect marine animals off the California coast, particularly mammals, with the adoption of what the Pacific Fishery Management Council calls a ‘hard cap’ on bycatch numbers. The swordfish industry uses drift gillnets, massive nets up to a mile long, set at night to catch the fish along the California coast. The problem with these nets, apart from their massive size, is that their placement at the surface means that many other species become bycatch. Figures for bycatch constitute around 64 percent of any catch using a drift gillnet.

The newly instituted hard cap is a fixed number of accepted individual animals of various species caught by accident — for instance two fin whales — over the coming two years. If this number is reached for any species, the authorities will suspend all drift gillnet fishing for the rest of the season and the entire following season.

Combined with theses increased measures, the Pacific Fishery Management Council will increase its monitoring of California fishing practices to cover 30 percent of all fishing activities over the next two years, and up to 100 percent in 2018.

While this is hardly a total ban on drift gillnets (Congress voted down a proposal to that effect in May), and even allows some, if low numbers of, bycatch, it is still a major win. If the swordfishing industry manages to stay below the bycatch caps, it will be a huge reduction compared to today, and if it can’t, this type of fishing will be suspended altogether.

Oceana hopes that this win becomes a stepping stone for an entirely new way of approaching the fishing industry. The marine-protection organization is working to have a ban on deep-buoy fishing lifted, a practice wherein nets are placed at a greater depth and are deployed during the day, when swordfish are among the very few marine animals at that depth. Although this reduces the risk of bycatch to extremely small percentages, deep buoys have been banned on the West Coast due to improper use by fishermen when the technique was introduced years ago and the technology was significantly less effective.

“The fishermen will really start thinking about a new future,” says Oceana’s California program director Geoff Shester. “It’s an interim step that will safeguard marine life as we transition to cleaner ways to fish altogether. That’s the future we want to support.”

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