Drift Gillnets Still Killing California Whales

disentanglementPhoto Courtesy : NOAA

The United States decided a long time ago to stop commercial whaling; and today people flock to our coast to see whales migrating in our waters. What they may not realize is that these same whales are still caught and killed in fishing nets. Despite important national laws like the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and Endangered Species Act which prevent the direct commercial slaughter of whales today, our government allows commercial fishermen with drift gillnets to “incidentally” catch, maim, and kill not only whales, but dolphins, seals, and sea lions off the California coast.

Driftnets have been banned on the high seas and by many other coastal states and nations, yet they are still used off the coast of California to target swordfish and thresher sharks. Appropriately nicknamed “walls of death,” these mile-long nets are set overnight in the open ocean and snag and often drown a variety of marine life innocently passing in the night. While these nets are intended for swordfish, sadly, they also commonly ensnare and kill marine mammals.

On average, over 100 marine mammals are killed each year off California in driftnets. The list of victims is long and includes humpback, minke, pilot, and sperm whales, as well as dolphins, California sea lions, and Northern elephant seals. Other species that encounter these walls of death include endangered leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles, sharks, ocean sunfish, and many other fish, which are ensnared and tossed back to sea dead and dying. In 2011, this driftnet fishery tossed back six dead fish and one marine mammal for every five swordfish landed.

Astonishingly, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) estimates 16 endangered sperm whales were taken by these California driftnets in 2010 alone. Sperm whales are one of the deepest diving whales, capable of reaching depths in excess of 3,000 feet. It is difficult to imagine this gentle giant, with relatively little natural threats, falling victim to fishing nets. However, when a sperm whale collides and entangles with a driftnet, it is often unable to surface for air, and eventually drowns. This fate is a cruel and inhumane way to die.

Although Washington and Oregon fishermen are not permitted to use these nets because of their destructive nature, the California legislature authorized the use of this gear in 1980 and now the fishery is co-managed with the federal government. The driftnet swordfish fishery mostly takes place far offshore of Southern California, but it also occurs west of Monterey Bay, and at times further north. It’s been a 30-year experiment, and despite various area closures and gear modifications, it’s proven to continue to be dirty, destructive, and unnecessary. The state of California and NMFS seem to consider killing whales, dolphins, and seals in these driftnets as a cost of doing business. Far from the national goal of zero takes set by Congress in the MMPA, this fishery has killed an estimated 1,040 marine mammals in the past 10 years. It will continue to kill more this year, and the next, until the use of drift gillnet gear is stopped. This is an outrage, and one that is entirely preventable.



About narhvalur

Environmentalist, Animal Lover, Birder,Equastrian
This entry was posted in Cetaceans and Whaling, Fishing, Marine Mammals and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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