Let's Phase Out Drift Gillnets

I love the taste of swordfish and, like other conservation-minded seafood lovers, I want to know that the fish is being caught as sustainably as possible. Unfortunately, swordfish caught in drift gill nets off the California coast don’t meet that mark for me.

This form of fishing has been the focus of controversy on the West Coast for years due to the collateral damage caused by the destructive gear. These nets can stretch over a mile and drift in the water for hours. Too often the indiscriminate nature of this type of fishing results in catching and killing even more nontargeted species (bycatch) than swordfish, including dolphins, blue sharks, sea lions, and even endangered whales and rare sea turtles.

Today, researchers are trying to determine how to catch swordfish in a way that minimizes the bycatch of ecologically critical fish and marine mammals that are also highly valued by the public.

Members of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages fishing in federal waters off the U.S. West Coast, have made it clear that they, too, see problems with the current fishery. In March of this year, the council set a goal of transitioning it to more environmentally sustainable types of fishing gear.

A shift to less-wasteful fishing methods takes time. At its November meeting, the council will consider several steps that can be taken now to hold the fishery accountable for its bycatch, including precautionary limits on the number of endangered animals inadvertently killed by drift gill nets and a stipulation that once these limits are reached, fishing would stop for the season. Further, the council should support having a trained observer on every vessel while it’s fishing to monitor the catch. Final action is expected in 2015.

It's Time to Find a Better Way to Catch Pacific SwordfishIllustration: Ned Drummond

Drift gillnets target swordfish but indiscriminately kill other animals, too, including many species of game fish, sharks, marine mammals, and Pacific leatherback sea turtles.

However, the council has said it is willing to accept monitoring for less than a third of all trips in the next fishing season. That approach—setting limits without effectively enforcing them—simply doesn’t make sense. It’s akin to reducing the speed limit in a school zone without hiring enough patrol officers to enforce it.

Next month, the council should seize the opportunity to move one step closer to bringing these needed regulations into effect. By doing so, it will fulfill part of its goal to change the drift gill-net fishery to more selective, more sustainable methods of fishing. It’s a move with overwhelming public support, something the council made a commitment to, and a protection the ocean deserves.

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