Federal fishery revokes proposed “hard cap” rule for drift gillnets

WASHINGTON, D.C. — An attempt to establish strict limits on a large-mesh drift gillnet fishery in California was scrapped after the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) determined the proposal was unwarranted at this time.

Both federal agencies reviewed a formal request by the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) to implement a two-year rolling hard cap on observed mortality and injury of certain protected species within the drift gillnet fishery.

NMFS and NOAA announced June 12 the rule proposal would be withdrawn.

“Under the proposed regulations, caps would have been established for five marine mammal species and four sea turtle species. When any of the caps were reached, the fishery would have been closed for the rest of the fishing season and possibly through the following season,” the Federal Register Notice of the rule proposal stated. “The length of any closure would have depended on when during the two-year period a cap was reached.”

Supporters of the proposed hard cap rule, according to a NOAA analysis, stated such an action “would increase protection for non-target species and incentivize industry to practice clean fishing techniques.”

Those opposed to the hard cap proposal stated the ruling, if adopted, “would have minimal conservation benefits while imposing unnecessary economic hardship.”

Opponents also argued the NMFS “underestimated the economic effects” of the proposal to drift gillnet participants and the incidental catch of protected species within the fishery was “adequately managed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act … and Endangered Species Act (ESA).”

The NOAA analysis concluded a hard cap rule would yield minimal positive effects on protected species but have an adverse economic impact on fishery participants.

“NMFS found that implementing [PFMC’s] proposed regulations to establish protected species hard caps for the [drift gillnet] fishery would have minor beneficial effects to target and non-target fish species and protected species at the cost of significant adverse economic effects to the participants in the fishery if and when closures would occur,” NOAA staff reported in its analysis of the hard cap proposal.

“NMFS projected that the proposed regulations would have led to a DGN fishery closure only once in the past 15 years and that the fishery would not be expected to close often in the future if protected species interaction rates remain the same,” the analysis continued.

Swordfish and thresher sharks have been a primary protected species within California’s drift gillnet fishery since the late 1970s.

The state manages the drift gillnet fishery through a limited entry permit system. Each vessel must abide by mandatory gear standards and seasonal closures. California issued about 150 permits when the fishery was established in 1980. Permitting peaked in 1986, with 251 vessels allowed to operate within the drift gillnet fishery. The number of issued permits has steadily declined since. NOAA reported fewer than 80 permits were issued in recent years.

“Fishing activity is highly dependent on seasonal oceanographic conditions that create temperature fronts which concentrate feed for swordfish. Because of the seasonal migratory pattern of swordfish and seasonal fishing restrictions, nearly all of the fishing effort in recent years has occurred from August 15 through January 31 off the California coast,” NOAA officials stated in the analysis of PFMC’s rule seeking.

Vessel revenues from the drift gillnet fishery’s ex-vessels, according to NOAA, declined from $3.79 million in 2001 to about $454,000 in 2015.

“Despite a temporary increase in participation and ex-vessel revenue from 2004 through 2007, a general downward trend exists for both,” NOAA staff stated. Both vessel participation and fishing effort (measured by the number of sets) have declined over the years. Industry representatives attribute the decline in vessel participation and annual effort to regulations implemented to protect marine mammals and endangered sea turtles.”

NOAA photo

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