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April 28, 2014
Viewpoints: Protect majestic dolphins by banning drift gillnets to catch swordfish

dolphin.JPG(April 28 - By Geoff Shester, Special to The Bee)

For decades, U.S. consumers have demanded that store-bought canned tuna be dolphin-safe. We prohibit our own tuna fishermen from setting nets on dolphins, and we've banned imports of tuna from countries that cannot prove they're not harming dolphins. We are outraged when we see movies like "The Cove," which documented the intentional killing of these majestic, intelligent creatures.

Yet few people know that dolphins right off the California coast are being killed in our local swordfish fishery that uses drift gillnets. In the past six years, drift nets off California have killed more than 300 dolphins, including common dolphins, Risso's dolphins and northern right whale dolphins. Even worse, this slaughter is permitted by our state and federal government.

Recognizing the destructive nature of these drift gillnets, the Legislature is considering Assembly Bill 2019, which would eliminate this gear type while replacing it with cleaner, more sustainable fishing gear. AB 2019 - scheduled to be heard today by the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks, and Wildlife - will allow all fishermen who currently have a drift gillnet permit to continue to fish for swordfish; they just won't be able to do it with these deadly nets. Instead, permits will be issued to fish with hook and line and harpoons, which are already legal and proven to work.

Through the 1970s, California had a booming swordfish fishery that used hand-launched harpoons to catch swordfish. Then in 1980, the Legislature authorized drift gillnets, which allowed fishermen to catch more swordfish with less effort and outcompete the harpoon operations. Drift gillnets are mile-long nets submerged in the open ocean to "soak" overnight to catch swordfish and thresher sharks.

But that's not all they catch.

The waters off California are an ocean's version of Africa's Serengeti, a feeding destination for ocean travelers from across the Pacific. Drift gillnets are set right in this ocean highway, entangling and drowning endangered sea turtles, ocean sunfish, sea lions, sharks and even whales. In the last five years, the National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that drift gillnets entangled 16 endangered sperm whales. Many people are outraged by commercial whaling by other countries, yet the killing of whales - as bycatch - is permitted in our ocean backyard.

Bycatch is often considered incidental or unintentional; however, everyone setting drift gillnets in the open ocean knows full well they are going to catch more than just swordfish. More than half of all animals caught in these nets are thrown back into the ocean (61 percent in the last six years), making this fishery among the dirtiest bycatch fisheries in the country, if not the world. Oregon and Washington prohibit the use of drift gillnets by their fishermen. Drift gillnets are also banned in the U.S. East Coast swordfish fishery, by the European Union in the Mediterranean and by the United Nations in international ocean waters. It is time for California to align with the many other states and nations around the world by removing these deadly nets off our coast.

In 1979, harpoon fishing brought in more than four times the swordfish that gillnets landed in 2012. Also in 2012, there was a resurgence of swordfish caught by hand hook and line gear. What's more, according to the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, the swordfish gillnet fishery represents less than one-half of 1 percent of California commercial fishing revenues, and the number of active drift gillnet fishermen is at an all-time low. Additionally, the California Ocean Protection Council has invested in experiments to develop new, economically viable fishing methods to catch swordfish.

AB 2019 is the most effective way to swiftly transition this fishery to a profitable, revitalized enterprise based on clean, responsible fishing methods that will build California's reputation in the seafood marketplace as a producer of sustainable seafood. California has been a leader in ocean conservation, but the drift gillnet swordfish fishery remains a dirty secret that needs to be addressed. AB 2019 is an opportunity to take a stand for ocean wildlife, and finally put an end to this destructive fishing gear.

It's time we rid our oceans of drift nets so that both the swordfish we eat and the waters off our coastline are not only dolphin-safe, but whale-safe, shark-safe, and turtle-safe.

Geoff Shester is the California campaign director for Oceana, a nonprofit organization advocating for the protection of the world's oceans.