Sperm whale pod

 Emergency Regulations Imposed to Protect Sperm Whales from California Fishery

For Immediate Release

Short-term Fix Highlights Need to Eliminate Drift Gillnets to Protect Marine Life

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Today the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced emergency actions designed to protect endangered sperm whales from being caught in the California swordfish/thresher shark drift gillnet fishery. The emergency rule, prompted by advocacy by Turtle Island Restoration Network, goes into effect tomorrow. The overdue regulations came 20 days after the drift gillnet fishing season opened in offshore waters beyond 75 nautical miles.

“This wasteful driftnet fishery is always in crisis and the emergency never stops for whales, dolphins and fish that get caught and die by the hundreds,” said Teri Shore, Program Director, Turtle Island Restoration Network. “It’s time to ban driftnets instead of constant regulatory triage.”

The previous emergency regulations to protect endangered sperm whales from entanglement in the driftnets expired on January 31, 2014.

Most notably, the regulations state that NMFS will shut down California’s drift gillnet swordfish fishery if a single endangered sperm whale is killed or injured by the destructive nets. The rule requires independent observers on all drift gillnet vessels operating in offshore waters deeper than 6,500 feet (2,000 meters), where sperm whales are most often observed. The conservation measures will be enforced by requiring fishing vessels to carry vessel monitoring systems that track the real-time locations of all drift gillnet vessels off the U.S. West Coast. The announcement in the federal register can be accessed here.

The emergency actions will last through August 5, when the agency has committed to finalize a permanent rule for sperm whale protection. Two endangered sperm whales were observed entangled (one dead and the other seriously injured) in a drift gillnet in October 2010 off southern California and the agency estimates that 16 were caught given many vessels do not have observers on board.

In September 2012 Turtle Island Restoration Network and other conservation groups filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue for violations of the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act related to the capture of sperm whales in drift gillnets.

In 2013 federal fisheries regulators said they would deny a marine mammal “take” permit for the fishery without measures to reduce the risk of whale entanglements in the future. The emergency rule is intended to put the agency back into compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, as in recent years the drift gillnet swordfish fishery caught and killed sperm whales in excess of Potential Biological Removal limits (the maximum number of deaths that the population can sustain and still recover).

Fishing for swordfish and thresher sharks with drift gillnets involves setting mile-long nets at dusk that drift freely where fish, sharks, turtles, and marine mammals feed or migrate during the night. Subsequently the fishery entangles and discards more marine life than it keeps, making this fishery among the deadliest in the nation for marine mammals.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, the advisory body to NMFS, will meet June 22 in Garden Grove, CA to discuss transitioning the drift gillnet fishery to other, more sustainable gear types. Turtle Island is seeking swift and definitive action to establish a date-certain permanent prohibition on drift gillnet fishing gear off the U.S. West Coast as well as a plan to replace drift gillnets with sustainable ways of catching swordfish in order to properly address the atrocious bycatch currently taking place in the fishery.