Short-Term Fix Only Offers Temporary Relief From Mile-Long Drift Nets

sperm whale

The National Marine Fisheries Service has announced emergency actions designed to protect endangered sperm whales from being caught in the California swordfish and thresher shark drift gillnets.

Fishing with drift gillnets involves setting mile-long nets at dusk that drift freely where fish, sharks, turtles and marine mammals feed or migrate during the night. As a result, marine life is entangled and discarded.

The Fisheries Service’s emergency rule, prompted by advocacy by conservation groups, comes 20 days after the drift gillnet fishing season opened, despite a request from the Pacific Fishery Management Council on April 1 to implement the rules by May 1, when the fishery opened.

The previous emergency regulations expired on January 31.

sperm whale Ones

“These emergency regulations offer some temporary relief to endangered sperm whales, yet the ultimate solution is to rid the West Coast of destructive drift gillnets altogether,” said Oceana California Campaign director Dr Geoff Shester. 

The regulations say that the Fisheries Service will shut down California’s drift gillnet swordfish fishery if a single endangered sperm whale is killed or injured by the nets. The rule requires independent observers on all drift gillnet vessels operating in offshore waters deeper than 2,000 metres, where sperm whales are most often observed.

The conservation measures will be enforced by requiring fishing vessels to carry vessel-monitoring systems that track the real-time locations of all drift gillnet vessels off the U.S. West Coast.

“These mile-long driftnets are a deadly trap for endangered sperm whales and other marine mammals, so we’re glad they’re getting these emergency protections,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But this problem needs a long-term fix. Permanent rules – if not a complete ban on these destructive nets – are long overdue.” 

“This wasteful driftnet fishery is always in crisis and the emergency never stops for whales, dolphins and fish that die by the hundreds,” added Teri Shore, program director at Turtle Island Restoration Network. “It's time to ban this gear instead of constant regulatory triage.”

The emergency actions will last through to August 5, when the agency has committed to finalize a permanent rule for sperm whale protection.