Federal court rules against NOAA Fisheries over driftnet regulation reversal

Published on
October 29, 2018

A federal judge last week ruled that NOAA Fisheries illegally withdrew a proposed rule that would have placed hard caps on bycatch of protected species caught in California’s swordfish drift gillnet fishery.

The decision by U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner in the Central District Court of California does not immediately put the caps in place. However, his order on Wednesday, 24 October, requires NOAA Fisheries to either reinstate the regulations or discuss any potential revisions with the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Two years ago, NOAA Fisheries published a proposed rule to limit the amount of bycatch in the driftnet fishery. Federal officials opened a public comment period on the recommendations approved by the PFMC. Under the plan, the fishery faced closure if four bottlenose dolphins or short-fin pilot whales suffered injuries or died as the result of an encounter with a net over a two-year period. Closure could have also happened if two fin, humpback, or sperm whales; or two leatherbacks, loggerhead, olive ridley, or green sea turtles were injured or killed in the same time span.

However, in June 2017, the agency opted to not enact the regulations, which prompted the lawsuit from Oceana the following month

“The court’s ruling protects whales, sea turtles, and dolphins and affirms the importance of public process and the role of the Pacific Fishery Management Council in regulating West Coast fisheries,” said Mariel Combs, the NGO’s senior Pacific counsel.

California’s swordfish driftnet fishery is considered controversial because the gear often ensnares animals other than what’s targeted. According to Oceana, the mile-long nets are used by 20 vessels and those boats discarded more than 60-percent of their harvest over a 13-year span ending last year. The number of marine mammals killed in the fishery outnumber those killed by all the other Pacific and Alaska fisheries combined.

Representatives from NOAA Fisheries told Reuters last week they had not seen the ruling and could not comment. 

It’s possible that any federal regulations would not be needed for long. California was the only state allowing driftnets, but Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law last month that would phase out the nets over a four-year period. In addition, the state’s U.S. senators have filed a similar bill in Congress to ban the practice nationwide. 

Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries

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