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Feds Move to Protect Endangered Species from Fishing Nets

Gray whales can drown when caught in a drift gillnet. Monday, the feds put swordfishermen who use the nets on notice. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Gray whales can drown when caught in a drift gillnet. Monday, the feds put swordfishermen who use the nets on notice. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
September 15, 2015

SAN DIEGO – The federal government put California swordfishermen on notice Monday, warning they'll be banned if they continue to inadvertently catch endangered species, whales, dolphins and sea turtles in their nets.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council set caps on the number of marine mammals that can be killed as bycatch when fishing boats use the mile-long, 200-foot-tall nets.

Ben Enticknap, campaign manager and senior scientist with the nonprofit group Oceana, notes the council also committed to putting inspectors or cameras on all gillnet boats by 2018.

"This is a really big deal," says Enticknap. "They're finally stepping up to say that's not going to be allowed anymore and, if the fishery does catch these species, they're going to shut them down."

Oceana estimates 885 marine mammals have died in gillnets over the past 10 years, trapped with the nets cutting into them, and drowned when they can't surface for air. The recommendations must still be approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is expected to implement new regulations before next summer's fishing season.

Conservationists would like to see the 20 or so California swordfishing crews operating from San Diego to Monterey switch to less-damaging methods to nearby sea life. Enticknap says those include harpoons and deep-set buoy gear.

"It's more work to selectively target these swordfish, rather than just setting out a mile-long net and then just throwing everything over and keeping the swordfish," says Enticknap. "But it has to happen to protect our ocean wildlife and have a local, clean, sustainable fishery."

Swordfishing drift gillnets are already illegal in Oregon, Washington, parts of the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and even Russia.

Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - CA