Court Orders NOAA to Revive California Drift Net Rule

Pilot whale taken as bycatch in a 14-inch mesh swordfish gillnet (undated file image courtesy NOAA Fisheries / Pew Trust)

By The Maritime Executive 10-30-2018 08:18:00

A federal court in California has overturned NOAA Fisheries' decision to cancel a proposed rule that would have tightened restrictions on bycatch in the California large mesh drift gillnet fishery. While the rule would affect fewer than 20 boats and $450,000 worth of swordfish - a very small segment of the U.S. Pacific fisheries overall - it has drawn attention because of its implications for marine mammals and endangered species. 

In 2014, the 14-member Pacific Fishery Management Council advised NOAA to institute 100 percent vessel monitoring and "hard caps" on protected-species bycatch in the California swordfish drift net fleet. The fishery has historically discarded about 60 percent of what it takes as unmarketable bycatch, including a small number of whales and turtles. Based on data from NOAA inspection reports, swordfish drift nets took at least 450 whales and 130 sea turtles over the 25-year period ending in 2016. In addition, according to the Pew Charitable Trust, the nets injure or kill more dolphins and porpoises than all other West Coast fisheries combined. 

In 2016, NOAA proposed to implement a strict version of the PFMC's "hard cap" proposal. Under the rule, a violation of bycatch limits would have resulted in the closure of the drift net fishery for two years. However, in June 2017, NOAA withdrew the proposed rule, citing "costs" and an absence of "significant additional conservation benefit." Last week's district court ruling requires NOAA to work with the PFMC to revise the rule or to reinstate it as written. 

In future years, the federal rule will be superseded by a state ban. Under a newly-enacted California law, drift gillnet licenses will be phased out by January 2023. The law allows the small number of remaining permit-holders to claim up to $110,000 each if they agree to surrender their nets by 2020. The legislature hopes to encourage the adoption of deep set buoy gear, which is in use as a less-selective alternative on the East Coast.  

Due to its effect on fisheries and marine resources, large scale drift net fishing has been banned on the high seas since 1993.