The culprit is the drift gillnet.
A handful of fishermen from Southern California lay out drift gillnets like open ocean blankets, an attempt to capture tasty and profitable swordfish and, in the process, make a living.
But opponents say the nets kill far more than swordfish; some call them “curtains of death.”
Fishermen disagree, saying the nets aren’t exceptionally lethal and that their industry is too tiny to dramatically change the ocean.
What’s known is this:
California remains the one state where drift gillnet fishing is legal, and the Legislature has authority over remaining gillnet permits. State lawmakers recently sent a letter to Pacific Fishery Management Council and National Marine Fisheries Service, demanding a transition to alternative fishing methods.
If the nets are banned it could change lives for fishermen – and diners – even as it potentially helps the health of the Pacific.
In the early 1970s, when Jon Mansur pulled into Dana Point Harbor with loads of swordfish, other commercial fishermen wanted to know his secret.
Mansur and his brother had developed an intricate netting system to snag swordfish. The first of these nets was a quarter-mile long. The largest – a mile long. The just hung in the ocean.
Later, the duo figured out a way to make the nets act as something like a spider web in the currents.
“People were wondering how we caught so much fish,” Mansur said. “All of a sudden others went for drift nets.”
The nets’ small 6-inch holes trapped everything. He adjusted the net loops to 10.5 inches and then to the 14 inches they are today. Still, people complained about how many marlin were caught in the nets. Observers were placed on boats to watch what the Mansurs and other fishermen trapped in the sea.
In California, swordfish are hunted in two seasons. From May through September, the fish are harpooned; from September through January, they are caught in drift gillnets.
Gillnets drift in the ocean from sunset until just before sunrise and catch everything that can’t escape. Swordfish are hauled on board and the dead and living extra catch is thrown overboard.
The catch is sold to restaurants or fish markets with wholesale licenses or to fish warehouses in San Pedro and San Diego, where the fish become fillet or steak.
Groups such as Oceana – focused on ocean restoration – and the Pew Charitable Trust have fought drift gillnets and support efforts to restrict them.
“We’re not into seeing the end of the swordfish fishery on the West Coast,” Geoff Shester, a scientist and campaign director with Oceana, said. “We’d like to see their experience be utilized. How do we empower them to be part of the solution?”
“We try not to blame responsible fishermen. But they are beginning to realize that they have to have more responsible fishing techniques,” said Pieter Folkens, a marine biologist who coordinates the entanglement network for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Although drift gillnets represent the smallest and most regulated type of fishing on the West Coast, demand for swordfish remains high.
In 2013, 20 fishing boats hauled in more than 800,000 pounds of swordfish worth $2.7 million, according to state reports. Most of that catch went to restaurants, caterers, culinary schools, hospitals and wholesale dealers.
Yet the nets were, perhaps, too good at their job.
Legislators say drift gillnets that year also killed more dolphins and whales than all other West Coast and Alaskan fisheries combined. The National Marine Fisheries Service reported nine short-beaked common dolphins, three California sea lions, three northern right whale dolphins, one gray whale and two short-finned pilot whales caught in drift gillnets from May 2013 through January 2014.
In response to the death count, the Pacific Fishery Management Council – a 14-member voting advisory board for federal fishery management agencies – agreed to put more inspectors on boats and set season limits on the number of marine mammals, sea turtles and other creatures that can be caught in the nets. If the limits were met, fishing would shut down for the season. A final ruling could come in March.
It’s already a small world. Last year, 79 gillnet permits were issued, though only about 20 boats operate between San Diego and Santa Barbara.
Michael Leech has been buying, cutting and cooking swordfish for four decades. His signature baseball-cut 3-inch pound of swordfish is the most popular dish at Cafe Zoolu in Laguna Beach.
But even before nets became a controversy, Leech never served up swordfish caught in them.
“How often do they go back and check the nets to see if dolphins, whales and turtles are dying in them?” he said.
Jim Heflin started as a deckhand on the Pilikia, a harpoon swordfish boat out of Newport Beach in 1969. Today, he owns the Chula, a 68-foot commercial fishing boat from San Diego that fishes for 13 California restaurants – the Bluewater Grills and the Fish Markets.
“When you eat a piece of fish, we can tell you the day it was caught, what temperature it was maintained, when it was delivered and when it arrived on the plate,” he said.
Heflin doesn’t oppose plans to track the extra catch from the nets. But he also says that the numbers cited by Oceana and other groups are “false science.” The nets are expensive – up to $60,000 – and would be torn up by the large creatures.
Heflin has applied for a permit to use buoy gear, a potential alternative developed by a scientist backed in part by the Pew Foundation.
The scrutiny and regulation, Heflin fears, may ultimately kill his industry.
“We’re talking about five to 10 boats, fishing two to three months a year, in millions of square miles of ocean with maybe four to five miles of net,” Heflin said. “To me it’s ridiculous we have to spend the little money we make to fight this. We are a dying breed.”
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