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California puts up $1.3 million to phase out swordfish nets that can kill sea turtles and whales

Conservationists are applauding the inclusion of $1.3 million in the new state budget that is designed to protect sea turtles and marine mammals from being killed by swordfish fishing gear.

The funds will be used in a voluntary buyback program to get California’s swordfish fleet to switch from drift gill nets — nylon nets up to a mile long that can catch and kill dolphins, sea lions and whales as well as the occasional endangered leatherback sea turtle — to what’s called deep-set buoy gear, which is designed to prevent entanglements. But some say the move will put fishermen out of business and limit Californians’ access to a local fish in good supply.

Gov. Gavin Newsom approved the funding last week as part of the $262.6 billion state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The funds will finalize implementation of state legislation passed in 2018 directed at phasing out the use of drift gill nets, which fishing boats pull behind them to capture swordfish, opa and thresher shark. The state’s swordfish fishery, which is mostly limited to Southern California, is the last place in the United States where the equipment is allowed. State permits for the gear will no longer be issued as of 2024, and there is federal legislation that aims to outlaw its use entirely.

“We’re very excited to see an ocean that can be free of this dangerous gear,” said Geoff Shester, California campaign director of the conservation group Oceana who has been working on the issue for 15 years. “It will be safer for whales and turtles and other animals that get caught in the gear.”

Oceana estimates that eliminating drift gill nets will prevent the deaths of dozens of whales and sea turtles and hundreds of dolphins, seals and sea lions over a decade, based on federal estimates. Yet such estimates are hypothetical, because only about 20% to 30% of swordfish boats have observers on board who can accurately track the entanglements, said Kit Dahl, staff officer for highly migratory species, including swordfish, at the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that since 2001, when drift gill net fishing was restricted to areas away from leatherback sea turtle habitat, bycatch has been between zero and two turtles annually. The number of bycatch of sea turtles and marine mammals estimated to be caught with drift gill nets doesn’t violate the federal Endangered Species Act or the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which would force the fishery to close, Dahl said.

But Shester said any reduction of bycatch in the fishery is attributable to the fact that there are fewer fishermen using the drift gill nets in recent decades.

“We don’t want to be supporting unselective, destructive methods,” he said. “Even if there’s fewer of them, that doesn’t make them OK.”

The alternative fishing method that’s being rolled out in California, called deep-set buoy gear, targets swordfish in deeper water with one long line and a hook held in place with buoys. But because that gear catches fewer fish, many of the state’s remaining 30-odd drift gill net fishermen could just opt out of fishing swordfish.

“We’re getting hammered,” said Gary Burke, a Santa Barbara fisherman who has been catching swordfish for over 40 years and remembers when there were 235 swordfish boats up and down the West Coast. “Unfortunately, the buyout will leave the fleet so small it won’t be able to produce a whole lot.”

The buyback program offers $100,000 to active fishermen to give up their old drift gill nets and $10,000 to turn in the permits.

The California swordfish industry revenue dropped from $4 million in 2017 to $2 million in 2019, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.


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