U.S. Could Begin Allowing Longline Commercial Fishing in West Coast Waters

An illustration of a fishing longline. Image: NOAA Fisheries.

NOAA Fisheries in early February announced the release of a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) regarding a proposal to issue exempted fishing permits (EFPs) allowing longline-type gear to target swordfish and other species in federal waters off the U.S. West Coast.

“This proposed action would allow for exploratory fishing in the U.S. West Coast EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone), under EFPs, to gauge impacts, to determine whether longline-type of fishing is economically viable, and to assess the type and extent of interactions with protected species and non-target finfish,” the National Marine Fisheries Service, aka NOAA Fisheries, stated in a Jan. 31 letter to stakeholders and interested parties.

Longline fishing off California has been barred by the federal government since 2004 as part of an effort to protect sea turtles.

The regulation is designed to protect endangered leatherback and green sea turtles, prohibit vessels that land their catch in California from conducting shallow swordfish longline sets on the high seas in the Pacific Ocean east of 150 degrees west longitude to protect endangered leatherback and loggerhead turtles.

Longlining is also banned for all U.S. longline vessels landing in Hawaii as well waters managed by the state of California.

Fishing with longline-type gear is currently prohibited in the EEZ under 50 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 660.712(a)(1).

The draft EIS released in late January by NOAA Fisheries is a 295-page report. Section 1 of the document introduces, and provides background information on, the Proposed Action, including discussion of how the Proposed Action relates to broader goals identified for the U.S. West Coast swordfish fishery, a description of the specific purpose and need for the Proposed Action, and identification of the Proposed Action Area.

Section 2 summarizes the alternatives to be analyzed. These are grouped under two Components which correspond to shallow-setting and deep-setting fishing practices. The section specifies five shallow-setting alternatives under Component 1 and four deep-setting alternatives under Component 2.

The first alternative in each component is the no-action alternative. The action alternatives represent different levels of anticipated fishing effort by key functional aspects of longline-type gear (shallow-setting and deep-setting) and effort (number of hooks), and each are subject to a set of mandatory terms and conditions.

Section 2 also describes a list of additional mitigation measures that may be applied to the action alternatives to further minimize catch of non-target species.

Section 3 describes the methodology used to evaluate the potential effects of the Proposed Action on the affected environment.

The method of analysis includes the use of proxy datasets, given data limitations, such as the lack of large fishery-dependent datasets to describe potential environmental impacts of the Proposed Action within the Proposed Action Area.

Section 4 describes the affected environment and analyzes the impacts of the alternatives on components of the affected environment that are likely to be affected, or may be affected, by the Proposed Action.

Analysis of the Proposed Action relies on catch rates from proxy datasets as a predictive tool to project catch and interaction rates.

The proxy datasets come from U.S. fisheries and EFP fishing trials that are regulated to mitigate interactions with non-target species in the Pacific Ocean. The section includes a biological impact analysis for species in which interactions were documented in the proxy datasets.

More specifically, the analysis includes the environmental consequences for a list of species categorized as commonly caught management unit species, other commonly caught species, prohibited species, and protected species.

Section 4 also includes a discussion and an evaluation of essential fish habitat and critical habitat, and domestic fisheries landing swordfish to the U.S. West Coast that may be affected by the Proposed Action as well as the no-action alternative.

Lastly, Section 4 describes the expected impacts of additional measures that may be applied under the Proposed Action. The measures and expected impacts are discussed in a qualitative manner.

Section 5 describes the cumulative effects of other fisheries and other EFPs in or near the Proposed Action Area, the incidental catch of protected species in or near the U.S. West Coast EEZ, and the geographic and temporal boundaries of the Proposed Action.

The section also includes a summary of the past, present and reasonably foreseeable future actions within the Proposed Action Area, and discusses climate variability and climate change.

The full 295-page document, which also includes 11 appendixes, can be downloaded at http://tinyurl.com/4mm8e9ar. 

Mark Nero can be reached mark@maritimepublishing.com