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California gillnet fishery eyed as threat to whales

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Spem whale photo by Tim Cole, National Marine Fisheries Service.

Endangered whales perishing in mile-long nets

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — California’s drift gillnet fishery may be classified as one of the most deadly to marine mammals, the National Marine Fisheries Service said this week, announcing its proposed list of fisheries classifications in the Federal Register as required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

According to federal biologists, more than three sperm whales die inadvertently each year after being entangled in the drifting nets along with other non-target species like sharks, turtles, dolphins and sea lions. The loss of sperm whales isn’t sustainable considering the small overall population, according to the proposed listing.

The agency may declare the California gillnet fishery one of two U.S. commercial fisheries in the Pacific classified as a “Category 1” fishery, a designation for those with “frequent” incidents of death and injuries to marine mammals. The other is the Hawaii tuna longline fishery.

“There’s no reason for endangered sperm whales to die in California gillnets. It just shouldn’t happen,” said Catherine Kilduff with the Center for Biological Diversity. “These incredible whales are already struggling against climate change, loud noises from military exercises and other threats. At the very least we should be trying to ensure they don’t get snared in indiscriminate fishing nets.”

On average, California gill-netters catch and discard more than 100 protected whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions each year, as well as thousands of sharks and nontarget fish. The vast majority are dumped back into the ocean, dead or injured, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Gill-netters set out mile-long nets at dusk that drift freely where fish, sharks, turtles and marine mammals feed during the night. The boats retrieve the nets the next day and haul in whatever catch has been ensnared in the nets.

Sperm whales have been listed as “endangered” since 1970. The California-Oregon-Washington stock of sperm whales are found year-round in California waters and reach peak abundance between April and mid-June and from the end of August through mid-November. In Washington and Oregon they have been seen in every season except winter. Deep divers known to prey on the elusive giant squid, females grow to 36 feet and 15 tons and males reach 52 feet and weight as much as 45 tons. Newborn calves are about 13 feet long.

Conservation groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, filed a notice of intent to sue the federal government under the Endangered Species Act in September 2012 for authorizing California’s drift gillnet fishery since the alarming take of sperm whales and other new information suggests the government has overlooked the fishery’s impact on endangered species. Previous Center action forced the fishery to implement closed areas to protect loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles.

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One Response

  1. [...] California gillnet fishery eyed as threat to whalesSummit County Citizens VoiceAccording to federal biologists, more than three sperm whales die inadvertently each year after being entangled in the drifting nets along with other non-target species like sharks, turtles, dolphins and sea lions. The loss of sperm whales isn't … [...]

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