The Trump Administration threw out a new ruling intended to protect endangered species – whales, sea turtles, dolphins and sharks from becoming collateral damage in gill fishing nets off the coasts of California and Oregon. The proposed regulation would have banned gill net fishing for up to two years if too many protected species – whales, sea turtles, sharks and dolphins continued to be caught and killed as by-catch.
Citing government figures, the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity said last year that the California-based gill net fishery targeting swordfish “catches and discards more than 100 protected whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions each year, in addition to thousands of sharks and other fish. This fishery kills more whales and dolphins than any other fishery off the U.S. West Coast and Alaska combined,”
Proposed in 2015 by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the gill net rule sought to impose a limit on the number of endangered marine mammals and turtles that could be killed or injured by the long (up to a mile in length) and nearly invisible floating gill nets used to catch swordfish. These nets and fishing methods are particularly lethal to marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and seals as they spend much of the time at the surface in order to breathe. The Pacific Fishery Management Council includes representatives from the fishing industry, tribal representatives, federal and state officials and other conservation experts. Some of the endangered species covered by the rule are humpback, fin, and sperm whales, bottlenose dolphins and leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles.
The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said this week that it had decided to scrap the gill net rule after discovering that the costs of the protections far outweighed the benefits. Michael Milstein – a NOAA spokesman, cited economic reasons for the decision, saying “the swordfish fishery has already implemented several protective measures to reduce the risk of by-catch. The number of whales, dolphins and sea turtles killed by fishing nets had significantly decreased since the early 1990s,” Milstein said.
Environmental groups rejected NOAA’s reasoning, however. Turtle Island Restoration Network noted that falling by-catch figures could more likely be attributed to the decline of the gill net fishing fleet in California, which has dropped from 129 vessels in 1994 to just 20 vessels or fewer in 2016.
While the number of whales, sea turtles and dolphins killed in the swordfishing industries nets has declined since earlier protections were put in place, the populations of some of these endangered species are extremely low. One catch of a Pacific leatherback turtle is a huge loss when you consider that there are only an estimated 2,300 females remaining in the world. Given the low numbers of some of these populations, every single death or injury is significant.