Today, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) published a final rule to implement strict limits —known as hard caps— on the number of whales, sea turtles and dolphins that can be injured or killed in the California-based swordfish drift gillnet fishery. This action is needed to clean up the fishery; one of the dirtiest in the nation. It kills more dolphins than all other observed West Coast and Alaska Fisheries combined. Due to the indiscriminate waste of the swordfish drift gillnet fishery, the state of California passed a law in 2018 to fully transition away from drift gillnets, and legislation is currently under consideration in the U.S. Congress that would prohibit this fishing gear in all U.S. waters.
Today’s final protections come after years of NMFS defying federal law, multiple court orders and the will of regional fishery managers by refusing to implement hard cap protections for nine highly vulnerable species of whales, sea turtles and dolphins. With these new regulations, if two or more of any one species of these endangered, threatened, or vulnerable species are observed to be injured or killed by the fishery, then the fishery will be shut down for the remainder of the season, and potentially for the next year as well. Despite finally issuing these overdue protections, NMFS indicates in the final rule that they intend to pursue a new rulemaking to weaken the regulations.
In response to today’s announcement, Tara Brock, Pacific counsel for Oceana released the following statement:
“Although we’re relieved these important protections for whales, sea turtles and other ocean creatures are now finally in place, NMFS delay and mismanagement of this fishery further show why we need to move away from this indiscriminate gear once and for all. Until drift gillnets are a distant memory, marine mammals, sea turtles, sharks, marlins, and other iconic ocean animals will continue to suffer unnecessary harm. Today’s announcement by NMFS demonstrates the agency’s disdain for the robust public process that led to the hard cap protections in the first place. NMFS had to be dragged to court multiple times for violating the law and now have committed to weaken these protective measures, while continuing to ignore the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s repeated calls for 100% monitoring in the fishery. Given NMFS’s apparent willingness to obfuscate and undermine the law, and disregard recommendations of regional fishery managers, we strongly support Congressional action to prohibit this fishing gear as well as full implementation of the California state transition program.”
Today’s action comes after a multi-year legal battle between NMFS and Oceana after NMFS failed to implement hard cap protections approved in 2015 by the Pacific Fishery Management Council — the 14-member voting body that makes recommendations to NMFS. A federal court originally ruled in Oceana’s favor in October 2018. Hard caps are intended to provide incentives to avoid catching nine highly vulnerable species of whales, sea turtles and dolphins, and to switch to cleaner fishing methods such as deep-set buoy gear — an innovative new fishing gear that catches swordfish while avoiding deadly harm to other animals. Continued inaction and refusal by NMFS to comply with the judge’s ruling led Oceana to pursue additional legal action, which led to a new court order in January of 2020 requiring NMFS to implement the final rule within 30 days.
The final protections are the result of a multi-year process involving fishermen, state wildlife agencies, environmental groups and members of the public.
California is in the midst of implementing a state transition program established under a new 2018 state law, where 28 of the 31 remaining active drift gillnet fishermen recently expressed interest in surrendering their permits and nets to the state of California. The Council recommended to NMFS that these fishermen also be first in line for new federal deep-set buoy gear permits so they can continue to make a living catching swordfish with cleaner gear.
Oceana is represented by Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP.
For more information about swordfish drift gillnets and gear alternatives visit www.oceana.org/stopthenets
Oceana is the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation. Oceana is rebuilding abundant and biodiverse oceans by winning science-based policies in countries that control one third of the world’s wild fish catch. With more than 200 victories that stop overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution and killing of threatened species like turtles and sharks, Oceana’s campaigns are delivering results. A restored ocean means that one billion people can enjoy a healthy seafood meal, every day, forever. Together, we can save the oceans and help feed the world. Visit www.oceana.org to learn more.