PFMC Considers Steps to End Bycatch of Marine Mammals, Sea Turtles in Swordfish Fishery

Pacific Fishery Management Council
The Pacific Fishery Management Council is working toward 100% observer coverage for California’s drift gillnet swordfish fishery. Image via PFMC.

Concerns over substantial bycatch of marine mammals and sea turtles in gear used in California’s drift gillnet swordfish fishery have the Pacific Fishery Management Council working anew toward 100% observer coverage for that fishery.

The PFMC, meeting virtually because of the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, was set to adopt a range of alternatives and preliminary preferred alternatives as appropriate on Nov. 18, to limit and monitor bycatch during the swordfish harvest.

A new analysis released on Nov. 15 by the conservation entity Oceana found that participants in California’s drift gillnet swordfish fishery are severely underreporting its catch of marine mammals and sea turtles, including injury and death from entanglement in fishing gear as required by law.

Oceana said its research uncovered gross underreporting of the numbers of these sensitive species that get entangled, injured and killed in the mile-long nets, which can have population impacts on threatened and endangered species like sperm whales and Pacific leatherback sea turtles.

In September 2018, California enacted state legislation to phase out use of large-scale driftnet fishing for swordfish through a transition program to incentivize harvesters to switch to deep-set buoy gear. Half of active drift gillnet fisherman have already been compensated for turning in those nets and permits and nearly 90% of the remaining active drift gillnet fishermen plan to participate in the transition program.

The bipartisan Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act introduced by Senators Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. and Shelley Moore-Capito, R-W.Va., would phase out use of large-scale drift gillnets nationwide and promote adoption of cleaner fishing gear that reduces the incidental catch of marine wildlife. The bill, S.273, passed the U.S. Senate in September and is now before the House.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has supported 100% observer coverage regarding drift gillnets in its discussions at the PFMC, noted John Ugoretz, marine resource assessment program manager for the state agency. Additionally, the overall bycatch, both observed and unobserved, in the drift gillnet fishery has declined significantly since the late 20th century, and, importantly, California is actively implementing a voluntary buy-back program that seeks to reduce the total number of drift gillnets used offshore, he said.

In a letter to the PFMC just days before the council meeting, Oceana said that hard caps on bycatch along with 100% monitoring are critical components of the council’s comprehensive plan to achieve a domestic West Coast swordfish fishery with minimal bycatch.

Fishermen are required by law to self-report all takes of marine mammals, but the Oceana research found that this rarely occurs for marine mammals and never for sea turtles. No marine mammals were reported as bycatch in nine out of 18 years, the Oceana analysis said. 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, the analysis said.

State regulators have begun to take action. CDFW recommended in August that leatherback sea turtles be listed as endangered under the state’s Endangered Species Act.

When the PFMC sent its recommendation to NMFS in 2017, the agency responded that it had made a negative determination on hard caps and urged the council to continue participating in the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s Take Reduction Team (TRT) processes for species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), through its membership on the Pacific Offshore Cetacean Take Reduction Team.“Implementing the council’s proposed regulations to establish protected-species hard caps for the drift gillnet fishery would have minor beneficial effects to target and non-target fish species and protected species at the cost of significant adverse economic effects to the participants in the fishery if and when closures would occur,” said Barry A. Thom, regional administrator for NOAA’s West Coast region.

Implementing hard caps under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act offers little additional benefit to protected species beyond what has been achieved by implementing regulations based on recommendations developed through ESA Section 7 and TRT processes, Thom said.