The National Marine Fisheries Service issued emergency regulations on September 3 that will shut down California’s drift gillnet fishery if a single endangered sperm whale is caught dead or injured. The rules will also require independent observers on all drift gillnet vessels operating in offshore waters deeper than 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) where sperm whales are most often observed (see attached map). The rules will be enforced by requiring new vessel-monitoring systems tracking the locations of all drift gillnet vessels off the U.S. West Coast.
The fishery kills more whales and other marine mammals than any other fishery along the West Coast and has one of the highest bycatch rates in the country. California's drift gillnet fishery targets swordfish and thresher sharks.
“Gillnets are deadly for endangered sperm whales, so these emergency rules give them at least some protection this year," said Catherine Kilduff, with the Center for Biological Diversity. “But whales are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the deadly toll California's drift gillnets take on other sea animals. We need long-term measures to reform this fishery before it's too late.”
Two endangered sperm whales were observed entangled (one dead and the other seriously injured) in a drift gillnet fishing net in October 2010. The incident prompted federal fisheries regulators to deny a marine mammal “take” permit for the fishery without measures to reduce the risk of whale entanglements in the future.
Drift gillnet fishing involves setting out mile-long nets at dusk that drift freely where fish, sharks, turtles and marine mammals feed or migrate during the night. On average this California fishery — which operates primarily between Aug. 15 and Jan. 31 — catches and discards more than 100 protected whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions each year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Recent fishery observer data indicates that for every two swordfish the fishery catches to sell, on average one blue shark, 15 ocean sunfish, and a long list of other fish are thrown overboard dead or injured. More....