NOAA pulls rule on bycatch limits


The National Marine Fisheries Service withdrew a rule in its final stages of approval that would have imposed strict limits on the number of some protected marine mammals—including whales, dolphins and sea turtles—that can be killed or injured by the West Coast swordfish industry. 

Though the fishery has shrunk dramatically in recent years, it uses mile-long drift nets that are notorious for sweeping up bycatch. 

“This is the most egregious attack from the Trump administration on ocean policy that we have seen so far,” said Todd Steiner, the executive director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network. 

He said the fishery kills more marine mammals than all other West Coast fisheries combined. 

Yet the numbers have dwindled in recent years. According to NOAA, deaths and injuries to protected whales declined from more than 50 in 1992 to no more than one or two a year by 2015. During the same period, the associated deaths and injuries of common dolphins steadily declined from almost 400 to only a few, and the numbers for endangered Pacific leatherback turtles dropped from 17 to no more than one a year.

The Fisheries Service attributes the drop to existing regulations governing the swordfish industry.

“The fishery has been under pressure for years to reduce its impact, and it has been very successful doing that,” Michael Milstein, a Fisheries spokesman, recently told the Los Angeles Times. “The cap [from the rule] would have imposed a cost on the industry to solve a problem that has already been addressed.” 

Yet Mr. Steiner argues that the deaths and injuries have dropped mainly because the gillnet fishing fleet in California has declined dramatically due to economic hardship. According to NOAA figures, the number of vessels dropped from a high of 129 in 1994 to 20 in 2016.

He also flagged the fact that since only 20 percent of boats are required to carry federal observers, there are probably many more mortalities occurring than are being recorded. 

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages fisheries along the West Coast and makes annual recommendations to NOAA for best practices, first suggested the cap regulations in 2015. The rule would have protected endangered fin, humpback and sperm whales; short-finned pilot whales; common bottlenose dolphins; and endangered leatherback, loggerhead, olive ridley and green sea turtles. 

It would have brought two-year rolling hard caps on observed mortality and injury to those species during the May through January fishing season. When any of the caps for a given species were reached, the fishery would have been closed for the rest of the season and possibly through the following season.

A public comment period on an environmental assessment and other permitting documents closed last December.

Turtle Island Restoration Network will likely join other species protection groups to pursue the reintroduction next year of a bill designed to transition California’s swordfish industry away from drift gillnets to more sustainable fishing technology.