Oceana Analysis Finds Rampant Underreporting of Whale, Dolphin, and Sea Turtle Catch in California’s Swordfish Drift Gillnet Fishery
Findings demonstrate 100% observer coverage is required to hold the fishing fleet accountable
Press Release Date: November 15, 2021
Location: MONTEREY, Calif.
Oceana released a new analysis today that finds participants in California’s drift gillnet swordfish fishery are severely underreporting catch of marine mammals and sea turtles — including injury and death from entanglement — as required by law. The fishery is already known to be among the most damaging off the West Coast to marine mammals; however, the analysis uncovered gross underreporting of the numbers of these sensitive species that are entangled, injured, and killed in the mile-long nets which can have population impacts on the most threatened and endangered species like sperm whales and Pacific leatherback sea turtles.
Oceana analyzed bycatch data from trips carrying federal fishery observers against trips where observers were not present. Fishermen are required by law to self-report all takes of marine mammals and to report all catch in federal logbooks. However, we found self-reporting of marine mammal catch rarely occurs and never occurs for sea turtle take. Fishery observers were not present for 80% of the California driftnet fishing effort from 2001 to 2018 and when no observer was present, fishermen only reported 28 marine mammal takes and zero sea turtle takes. No marine mammals were reported as bycatch in nine out of 18 years. In contrast, the National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that unobserved drift gillnet vessels caught 1,219 marine mammals and 33 sea turtles from 2001-2018, meaning roughly 98% of marine mammal takes and 100% of sea turtle takes were not self-reported.
When observers were present to document the catch, the bycatch rate of California sea lions — the number of sea lions caught per fishing set — was 65 times greater than what fishermen self-reported when a federally trained observer was not present. The rate of dolphin bycatch was 45 times greater when an observer was present than when not.
“Clearly there’s something egregious going on here,” said Dr. Geoff Shester, California campaign director and senior scientist with Oceana. “The only logical explanation is that fishermen are discarding their catch of marine mammals and sea turtles and failing to report it. The fact that federal fishery managers continue to allow these vessels to fish without observers on board knowing that fishermen are underreporting their catch is irresponsible and ultimately undermines conservation efforts at the expense of ocean wildlife.”
“What we’ve previously known about this fishery already makes it one of the most destructive in the nation, and now we know we must have observers on every vessel to get accurate estimates of its toll on our most vulnerable ocean animals. This destructive fishery must be held accountable for the carnage it leaves behind. Ultimately, it’s time to end the use of these swordfish driftnets altogether.”
Despite repeated calls for 100% monitoring of the drift gillnet swordfish fleet by the federal Pacific Fishery Management Council, Oceana, recreational fishermen, state legislators, and others, only one in five drift gillnet fishing trips is documented by federal fishery observers. The lack of monitoring exacerbates long standing concerns over the wasteful nature of this fishery.
Under the Trump Administration, the National Marine Fisheries Service refused to implement a unanimous 2015 recommendation by the Pacific Fishery Management Council for 100% monitoring of the drift gillnet fleet by 2018 and hard caps — strict limits on the seven species of marine mammals and sea turtles that can be injured or killed before the remaining fishery would be closed.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council will meet on Thursday November 18 to again discuss approaches to limit and monitor bycatch in the California drift gillnet swordfish fishery. Oceana is calling on the Council now to reinstitute the original hard caps to prevent increases in bycatch, and incentivize the use of cleaner fishing methods. Oceana is also calling on the National Marine Fisheries Service to require observers on every drift gillnet trip.
In September of 2018 California enacted state legislation to phase out the use of large-scale driftnet fishing for swordfish through a transition program to incentivize fishermen to switch to deep-set buoy gear. Half of active drift gillnet fishermen have already been compensated for turning in nets and permits and nearly 90% of the remaining active drift gillnet fishermen plan to participate in the transition program. Complementary federal legislation — the bipartisan Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act (S. 273) introduced by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Shelley Moore-Capito (R- W.Va) — would phase out the use of large-scale drift gillnets nationwide and promote the adoption of cleaner fishing gear that reduces the incidental catch of marine wildlife. The bill passed the U.S. Senate in September and is now before the House of Representatives.
For more information about Oceana’s campaign to protect whales, sea turtles, and other ocean animals by transitioning away from deadly drift gillnets please 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 225 victories that stop overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, and the killing of threatened species like turtles and sharks, Oceana’s campaigns are delivering results. A restored ocean means that 1 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.