NOAA to implement hard cap closure rule for drift gillnet fishery

The hard cap closure would be implemented if the mortality/injury of protected species are met or exceeded during a rolling two-year period.

WEST COAST—A federal final rule setting new closure rules on the California and Oregon drift gillnet fishery for swordfish and thresher sharks will go into effect on March 9. The final rule was announced in response to a federal court ruling in January.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced they are, under the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), authorized to implement the “immediate closure” of the California and Oregon drift gillnet fishery (14-inch minimum mesh size) for swordfish and thresher shark.

Closures would be implemented if the hard cap on mortality/injury for protected species was met during a rolling two-year period.

“The length of closure will be dependent on when the hard cap is reached,” NOAA staff stated in the final rule document, which was published on FederalRegister.gov on Feb. 7. “The implementation of hard caps is intended to manage the fishery under the MSA to protect certain non-target species.”

The drift gillnet fishery has been closed inside the entire U.S. West Coast exclusive economic zone, between Feb. 1 and April 30, since 1982. Another closure was implemented in 1986, keeping the drift gillnet fishery off limits from within 75 miles of the California mainland, between June 1 and Aug. 14. The 1986 closure aimed to conserve the common thresher shark population, and, by 1990, was extended to include May.

NMFS staff would also expand restrictions to protect endangered leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles.

“The number of active vessels in the [drift gillnet] fishery has remained [at less than] 50 vessels since 2003, with an average of 20 active vessels per year from 2010 through 2018,” NOAA staff stated in its final rule document.

Protected hard caps became a part of the policy direction in 2012. The scope of hard-cap protection expanded from sea turtle interactions to all marine mammals by 2014.

The hard-cap policy continued to gain momentum through 2016. NMFS, that year, proposed a plan of action to include two-year rolling hard caps based on observed mortality/injury. The proposed rule, however, was withdrawn in June 2017, due to what NMFS described as duplication and inconsistency.

A federal lawsuit was initiated one month later and culminated in a ruling issued on Jan. 8 of this year.

“The court ordered NMFS to publish a final rule for hard caps by Feb. 7, 2020,” the NOAA final rule document stated. “The order also states that NMFS shall consult with the Pacific Fisheries Management Council … before making any revisions to the proposed regulations.”

Members of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, however, aren’t meeting until March, meaning the court order forced the issue before NMFS staff could consult with the council on possible revisions.

NMFS, accordingly, published the hard caps regulations as originally proposed, as directed by the court order. NOAA stated NMFS staff would follow up and engage with the council on the economic effects of the hard-cap regulation, as part of a separate rulemaking.

Public comment on the final rule will be accepted through March 23.

NOAA staff added a specific distinction about the intent of the final rule (and hard-cap regulation): the mandated limits manage a fishery, as opposed managing a species population.

“The implementation of hard caps is intended to manage the fishery under the MSA to protect certain non-target species,” the NOAA final rule document stated. “Its purpose is not to manage marine mammal or endangered species populations, but rather to enhance the provisions of the Endangered Species Act … and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.”

 

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