Final action on drift gillnets postponed until June

By: Parimal M. Rohit

VANCOUVER, Washington — A major ruling was issued by a federal fishery council earlier this month and it did not involve drift gillnets or bluefin tuna limits.

Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) policymakers delivered a landmark ruling during its five-day meeting in Vancouver, Washington, to ban fishing of seven types of pelagic species, which are smaller fish generally found at the bottom of the food chain.

Council members instituted the ban on March 10.

However, PFMC’s board deferred its final action on changes to the drift gillnet fishery management until June. According to Kit Dahl of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the council will use the next three months to review proposed alternatives of how to regulate gillnet fishing. The controversial fishing gear is used to capture large fish.

The federal council was considering a series of proposals recommending drift gillnets be subject to strict guidelines. Specifically, the proposals recommended drift gillnets be judged by a standard of mortality or serious injury instead of a broader measure of how frequently marine life interacts with the fishing gear.

According to news reports, anglers who use gillnets in Oregon and Washington are not granted fishing licenses. Although California voters approved a drift gillnet ban in state waters about 25 years ago, fishing vessels are still permitted to use the gear in federal waters. State legislators proposed a bill in Sacramento last year seeking to ban the drift gillnet fishery; the bill never made it out of committee.

The United Nations General Assembly reportedly outlawed drift gillnet use on the High Seas in 1993.

In December 2014, five state legislators (including State Sen. Bill Monning and Assemblyman Marc Stone) reportedly wrote a letter to PFMC, urging them to ban drift gillnets.

According to environments and legislators, drift gillnets pose a threat to a wide swath of marine life, including dolphins, sea otters and sharks. Drift gillnets are used to catch swordfish.

More than 230 scientists petitioned Gov. Jerry Brown, Assemblywoman Toni Atkins and PFMC chair Dorothy Lowman to phase out use of drift gillnets.

“Drift nets and other gillnets are among the most potentially damaging industrial fishing methods, since they are massive nets that indiscriminately capture a wide range of target and non-target marine species and have some of the highest bycatch rate of any fishery in the world,” the petition letter stated. 

Marko Mlikotin, executive director of California Sportfishing League, urged anglers earlier this month to support a ban on drift gillnets.

“Drift gillnets are responsible for an unacceptable amount of unintended death or injury to fish and marine life. While a very small segment of the commercial fishing industry still uses drift gillnets to catch swordfish and thresher sharks, it is limiting sportfishing opportunities that support outdoor tourism and California jobs,” Mlikotin said.

The Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN) reported only 12 percent of species caught by gillnets are swordfish, the intended target of the controversial fishing gear. About 65 percent of catches were discarded and thrown overboard, according to TIRN.

Doug Karpa, TIRN’s legal program director, said he believes PFMC will ultimately restrict or ban drift gillnet use along the West Coast.

“We know there’ll be whole sorts of ecological impacts. It’s much dirtier than anything else we use in California,” Karpa said of gillnets.

He added TIRN and several federal legislators — including Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer — urged for the commission to adopt a transition plan to make the shift from drift gillnets to an alternative gear as smooth as possible.

The council is likely to resume the discussion of drift gillnets in June.

Beyond the pelagic fishing ban and delay in issuing a final rule on drift gillnets, the federal council did not discuss the regulation of Pacific bluefin, according to Dahl. He informed The Log the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service is “undertaking the regulatory process to implement the recommendations the council adopted last November.”

PFMC voted in November 2014 to drastically reduce the number of bluefin tuna anglers can catch in a day, adopting a two-fish-per-angler-per-day limit on the predatory and migratory fish species found between Japan and the western United States. The previous daily limit was 10 fish. After the November 2014 meeting, Dahl said the catch limit was adopted for 2015 and 2016 in light of a diminishing bluefin tuna population.

The federal council met March 6 to 12 just outside of Portland, Oregon.

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