The international conservation group Oceana has filed a federal lawsuit challenging a decision by federal fisheries regulators to pull proposed protections for whales, sea turtles and dolphins at risk of dying in sword-fishing nets off California.
Oceana’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles last week, alleges that the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to follow correct procedures for rejecting the protections. It asks the court to reinstate the tentative rules, which set caps on the number of marine mammals and turtles that fishermen can catch, and shut down gill net fisheries for two years if they exceeded that.
“If we want to keep a sustainable domestic sword fishery and grow it, but it’s not acceptable to harm marine mammals and turtles, we need to crack down on the gill net fishery and authorize a clean alternative,” said Geoff Shester, California Program Director for Oceana.
He said conservationists want sword-fishing fleets to convert to newer fishing gear that uses deep lines to catch swordfish and virtually eliminates harm to other animals.
The national fisheries service, however, has said that the rule capping the number of whales and turtles caught is unnecessary, since improvements to gill net fishing have already significantly cut catch of unintended species.
“We concluded that the cost to the fishery could be very significant, without a lot of associated environmental benefit, because there already have been a number of improvements in the way the nets are used and the technology around them that have dramatically improved the effect of the gill nets on whales, dolphins and turtles,” said Michael Milstein, a spokesman for the agency.
The proposed rule would have closed drift gill net fisheries for swordfish if two endangered whales or sea turtles were killed or injured within a two-year period. It also set triggers for shutting down the fishery if short-finned pilot whales or bottlenose dolphins were seriously hurt or killed in the nets.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council, the decision-making body for West Coast fisheries, approved those limits, called hard caps, in 2015. The national fisheries service initially agreed with the plan and published the proposed rule in October 2016. On June 12, however, the agency reversed that decision and withdrew the rule, arguing that the economic costs exceeded the environmental benefits. Oceana sued on Wednesday to force the agency to reinstate the proposed rule.
“We believe it’s illegal under federal fisheries law,” said Shester, noting that federal law delegates fishery management to the regional councils of scientists, fishermen and other stakeholders from coastal states. “They need to respect the council’s authority and expertise.”
Milstein said the rule would impose unnecessary conditions on sword-fishing fleets, pointing out that fishermen are already taking proactive action to prevent entanglement of other animals.
In recent years, fishermen have installed devices called “pingers” on gill nets, that emit noise warning whales to steer clear of the hazard, Milstein said. And they set their nets at least 36 feet below the surface, to avoid traffic of whales, dolphins and turtles, which tend to swim closer to the surface. Those improvements, he said, have already reduced bycatch of marine mammals and turtles.
For instance, in 1991, drift gill nets entrapped nearly 400 short-beaked common dolphins, the species that most frequently gets tangled in the nets, according to a technical paper from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the fisheries service. By 2015, they caught fewer than 10 of the dolphins. Similarly, there were an estimated 16 leatherback turtles entrapped in drift gillnets in 1993, but that dropped to less than one per year after 2010.
“At one time there was a very high toll, but that fishery has really cleaned up its act and brought the numbers way down,” he said.
The Oceana lawsuit is part of an ongoing struggle between conservation groups and the Trump Administration, which has vowed to repeal environmental regulations that it deems unfavorable to business. In other actions the administration has announced plans to expand offshore oil drilling, and to revoke a rule that gives the Environmental Protection Agency broad authority over pollution of streams and rivers.
Those measures, Shester said, have left environmental groups “playing defense right now.” In the case of swordfish, however, he said, there’s a win-win alternative that could protect both marine life and fishing jobs.
Fishermen typically set nets at night when swordfish are near the surface hunting prey, Shester said, but that puts them in close proximity to other fish, turtles and marine mammals. Scientists have worked with fishermen to develop “deep-set buoy gear” that allows them to fish during daytime, when swordfish are feeding in solitude 1,000 feet below the surface.
The method nearly eliminates bycatch, he said, and yields a better product. Fish caught on the deep lines are landed immediately, resulting in fresher meat that fetches higher prices at market.
“We shouldn’t be using this destructive method, when we’re got cleaner methods that are ready to go,” Shester said.
Milstein said the fisheries service has funded some of the trials for deep-set buoy gear, and is optimistic about its prospects, but they’re not sure the method can replace other sword-fishing techniques yet.
“It’s been very promising so far,” he said. “We’re expanding the pilot testing of that to include more vessels. The question is, can it be scaled up to a point where it can replace some of the drift gillnet fishing?”