Fishing gear that is responsible for the unintentional deaths of dozens of marine mammals every year will be phased out under a new bill passed by the state Legislature and awaiting the governorâ€™s signature.
Called drift gill nets, the often mile-long nets used to catch swordfish, also trap and kill many other species, including dolphins, seals and the occasional endangered sperm whale and leatherback sea turtle.
â€śAnything that comes in its way, itâ€™s going to (catch) in its net,â€ť said Paul Shively, project director of Pacific Ocean conservation at Pew Charitable Trusts, which has been working to ban the nets for five years. â€śItâ€™s not only inhumane, itâ€™s just not a good way to manage our U.S. resources.â€ť
Drift gill nets are large nylon nets attached to buoys and weights that fishing boats pull behind them. They have a wide enough mesh to allow juvenile fish to escape and come with acoustic pingers meant to scare away dolphins and whales, though they are not always successful.
Under SB1017, authored by State Sen. Ben Allen, D-Redondo Beach (Los Angeles County), and passed by state lawmakers last week, drift gill net fishermen would be compensated $100,000 for relinquishing their gear and $10,000 for turning in their permits. The legislation recommends an alternative, called deep-set buoy gear, that targets swordfish and significantly reduces the bycatch.
In 2016, Pew commissioned a poll that showed 86 percent of Californians would support a ban on drift gill nets. The United Nations banned the use of large drift gill nets in 1991, and in April, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced federal legislation to phase out the gear by 2020.
California is the only state that still issues permits for the gear. There are 20 active permit holders centered around Southern California.
The state brings in around $4 million in swordfish each year, the majority caught by longline boats in international waters. Between 15 and 30 percent of the catch came from drift gill net fishing boats in recent years.
The issue became inflammatory in April when an undercover video showing a fishermen cutting a shark out of his drift gill net went viral. Afterward, several fishermen, including Gary Burke of Santa Barbara, received anonymous death threats, and a fishing boat that appeared in the video mysteriously sank.
Burke and other drift gill net fishermen argue that they stay within strict bycatch limits agreed on by the Pacific Fishery Advisory Council, the agency that oversees their fishery. Theyâ€™re also concerned that the deep-set buoy gear recommended in SB1017 wonâ€™t be as economically viable and has already resulted in catching one sea turtle by a California fisherman trying it out.
Burke called the bill yet another example of the state restricting its seafood industry to the point where there will be little fresh fish left in the local market, only frozen imports from countries with lower environmental standards than the United States.
â€śThe sad, sad part of this whole deal is California is going to lose a good fishery,â€ť said Burke, a member of the advisory council who has been a swordfish fisherman his whole career.
Burke points to recommendations from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, which gives the California drift gill net a yellow or â€śgood alternativeâ€ť rating, saying that while bycatch is a serious concern, the swordfish population is itself healthy and thereâ€™s no impact on seafloor habitat. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls the North Pacific swordfish â€śa smart seafood choice because it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U.S. regulations.â€ť
Pew counters that half of what the drift gill nets bring up is bycatch, one-third of which is dead because the gear is left in the water overnight. (A large portion of the bycatch is finfish species that fishermen can sell in addition to the swordfish.)
Bycatch is tracked by observers who go out with swordfish boats 20 percent of the time. From the 2010 to 2017 fishing seasons, observed bycatch included one leatherback sea turtle and two endangered sperm whales, as well as many different types of dolphins, seals and elephant seals. On average, observers witnessed the entrapment of about 13 marine mammals per year, almost all dead, or 66 marine mammals annually if extrapolated to 100 percent.
Over the past several years, some California fishermen have been trying out the deep-set buoy gear Pew and others are proposing that they adopt. Unlike the drift gill net, deep-set buoy gear uses hooks. The gear goes as far as 1,200 feet below the oceanâ€™s surface to specifically target swordfish, is used during the day and has indicators for when something is caught.
When fisherman using the new gear caught a loggerhead sea turtle with it recently, he was able to release it immediately, and the on-boat observer saw the turtle swimming away, Shively said. The gear awaits final approval by the Pacific Fishery Management Council.