Dear Mr. Chris Oliver, Assistant Administrator, NOAA Fisheries:
I urge you to end the use of deadly drift gillnets that are used to catch swordfish off the California coast. Despite gear modifications and time and area closures, the unintended capture (bycatch) of non-target animals remains a major unresolved problem in the California drift gillnet swordfish fishery. These mile-long drift gillnets form dangerous underwater walls of death that continue to drown and critically injure an appalling number of other animals.
The drift gillnet fishery throws overboard, on average, 61 percent of all animals caught, making it one of the dirtiest U.S. fisheries. Roughly 70 different species are killed in this gear, including rare megamouth and basking sharks, recreationally important tunas and billfish, and endangered species like leatherback sea turtles, loggerhead sea turtles and sperm whales. NOAA Fisheries scientists estimate that between 2001 and 2015 the fishery entangled 1,460 marine mammals, sea turtles and seabirds. The fishery also caught and tossed overboard more than 140,000 fish, including tens of thousands of sharks, many dead or dying.
California legislators, members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, and tens of thousands of U.S. residents called upon your agency to implement protected species caps and to transition away from drift gillnets altogether off the West Coast. In September 2015, the Pacific Fishery Management Council recommended NOAA Fisheries implement clear limits on the take of nine species of whales, sea turtle and dolphins with clear consequences for hitting those limits. While first supporting the proposed hard caps, your agency recently pulled the proposed rule and contravened the will of its fishery council and the many members of the public who want to see an end to the killing of California’s whales, dolphins and turtles.
To maintain the health and biodiversity of the California Current marine ecosystem, drift gillnets should be prohibited and replaced with clean swordfish fishing methods, specifically deep-set buoy gear and harpoons. High bycatch gears, such as pelagic longlines, are not a suitable alternative to drift gillnets. Years of experimental and commercial trials demonstrate that deep-set buoy gear effectively targets swordfish with substantially less bycatch than drift gillnets. Ninety-eight percent of the California deep-set buoy gear catch has been marketable fish species and fishermen using this new gear have avoided harm to protected marine life. During a transition from drift gillnets to clean fishing gear, NOAA Fisheries should set clear limits on the capture of whales, sea turtles and dolphins.
Please direct your agency to phase out the California swordfish drift gillnet fishery. During the transition to a clean West Coast swordfish fishery using buoy-gear and harpoons, NOAA Fisheries should require protected species hard caps and 100 percent monitoring, as recommended by the Pacific Fishery Management Council.