Oceana sues feds after reversal on drift gillnets regulation

An international nonprofit group filed suit against the U.S. government earlier this month, saying the National Marine Fisheries Service improperly withdrew a proposed regulation to curb what it called one of the country’s “dirtiest fisheries.” 

On 12 June, the NMFS announced it would not proceed with a plan to put set limits on the number of endangered animals maimed or killed as a result of drift gillnets deployed off the coasts of California and Oregon. That decision reversed plans that had been in discussion for nearly two years, when the Pacific Fishery Management Council first approved the proposed regulation. 

The reversal prompted Oceana to take Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose agency oversees the NMFS, to court to reinstate a regulation that, according to its representatives, sportsmen, state officials and environmental advocates supported. 

“The government’s decision to withdraw the rule rejects a years-long stakeholder-driven process before the council,” Oceana said in a statement. 

A spokesman with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the NMFS, said the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation.

Fishing boats deploy the mile-long nets to catch swordfish. However, because of the size of the net, other creatures – including dolphins, sea turtles, sea lions and large whales – often get entangled in them. According to Oceana, since 2004 more than 60 percent of haul captured using the technique is bycatch. 

That process not only threatens endangered species but the group claims it’s also not sustainable.

The Pacific Council initially approved the regulation in September 2015, with the NMFS publishing the proposal last October. Under the plan, the fishery would have been required to close for at least the remainder of the current fishing season if it exceeded the cap on catching select creatures protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The fishing season typically runs from May to the end of January. According to NOAA, the California Department of Fish has issued 73 gillnet permits. However, on average, only 20 boats have taken part in the fishery in recent years.

Opponents to the measure claimed that a temporary closure due to the hard caps could lead to long-term economic damage for those in the fishery, according to NOAA documents. Further, the Marine Mammal Commission, an independent federal oversight agency, said even after a fishery reopens from a closure, the probability of catching an endangered whale remains unchanged. 

In the final regulatory impact review, published by NMFS in May, looked at several alternatives to the proposal, including taking no action. It ultimately recommended against the cap.

“If participants are not able to mitigate the significant short-term costs expected during closure periods and must seek alternative employment options or both, the significant short-term costs could lead to more significant long-term costs to the affected small entities,” the review stated.

Mariel Combs, a lawyer for Oceana, disagreed, saying the proposed regulation created an incentive for those in the fishery to change to safer methods, such as harpoon gear.

“Drift gillnets are a dirty and unsustainable way to catch swordfish,” she said. “Incremental steps, like limits on bycatch, are important tools to help move toward cleaner fishing.”


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