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Swordfishing practices under scrutiny on California’s coast

June 14, 2014 at 12:23 PM EST
A major clash in California is taking place between environmentalists trying to protect the abundant wildlife off shore and commercial fishers who depend on the ocean's bounty for their livelihood. Recently released images of sea life killed by drift gill-nets have heightened this debate. NewsHour Weekend special correspondent John Carlos Frey reports from California's coast.
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JOHN CARLOS FREY: The coast of California has a wealth and variety of marine life. On beaches south of San Francisco hundreds of elephant seals bask in the sun, sea lions gather on docks in Monterey bay, while humpback whales, dolphins, sharks, and other sea life roam the open ocean.

But these photos of dead sea life, caught in the drift gill-nets of commercial fishermen off the coast of California, have outraged conservationists.

GEOFF SHESTER: We’re seeing these images of the decks just filled with these, you know, bloody dolphins, these– these amazing sea turtles. And to literally just be going through hundreds of these images is– you know, it makes me sick to my stomach.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Geoff Shester is the California Program Director for Oceana, an international organization that focuses on ocean conservation. Shester obtained these photos this February from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, through a freedom of information request. These photos were taken by federal employees monitoring what’s known as by-catch: fish and other marine creatures caught by accident during commercial fishing.

The photos were taken on California commercial fishing boats that use drift gillnets. One-mile-long mesh nets that are intended to catch swordfish. But end up catching other sea life as well.

GEOFF SHESTER: In terms of the known deaths and mortalities to a lot of these iconic species, whether you’re talkin’ about large sharks– sea turtles, dolphins, and whales, I’m not aware of a single other activity that humans are doing that is actually causing the direct death of those– of such a large suite and number of animals.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Oceana estimates that for every five swordfish caught, one marine mammal dies in the gillnet because it either suffocates or succumbs to wounds inflicted by the net.

While the practice of using drift gill-nets was outlawed in California State Waters for most types of fishing more than two decades ago, swordfishing was exempt, only facing some restrictions. Now Oceana is supporting new legislation in California to ban the use of gillnets for sword fishing as well.

BARBARA BLOCK: We’re losing our ocean wildlife. What’s happening along California’s shores is that we have one of the richest ocean currents that flows across the most populous state, California.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: World-renowned marine biologist Barbara Block has found that the waters off the coast of California have one of the most robust ecosystems on earth. A discovery that has given conservationists ammunition to demand stricter environmental protections.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: And this is unlike any other place in the world?

BARBARA BLOCK: Very few places are like this that have– intact ecosystems still in play.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Over the past 10 years Block and a team of scientists, based at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey, pioneered a practice of tracking the movements of large sea creatures. Through a program called TOPP.. Tagging of Pacific Predators.. Block and others fitted sharks, turtles, blue fin tuna, and other sea life with monitors that beamed data about their movements to satellites. What Block learned was that these animals traveled thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean in migratory patterns akin to land based animals and always return to this sliver of ocean off California.

BARBARA BLOCK: We’ve discovered that this is a place where wildlife gathers, equivalent to the greatest plains in Africa, where we see elephants, gazelles, and zebras, and crocodiles together. Instead, here we’ve got white sharks, bluefin tuna, makos. We’ve got elephant seals, humpback whales, blue whales, all within a stone’s throw from Monterey.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  Block dubbed this region the “Blue Serengeti” because of its similarity with the African Serengeti, where animals roam freely. Now she’s part of a campaign to expand existing marine sanctuaries to protect more of this area.

Sanctuary status would limit large-scale industrial efforts like oil and gas exploration in these areas as well as ban the use of certain recreational watercrafts like Jet skis. But sanctuaries don’t regulate commercial fishing and the use of gillnets off the coast of California, which is why Barbara Block supports a ban.

BARBARA BLOCK: Gillnetting can be a very destructive form of fishing.

BARBARA BLOCK: I think the oceans requires bold movement where we’re pointing out to everyone else on the globe that we’re taking a stand. We’re preserving these places, and we’re doing what it takes to protect the wildlife that exists here.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  But the possibility of banning gillnets completely has these commercial fishers up in arms.

KATHY FOSMARK: It’s sad. It’s sad. I mean, I– I don’t wanna say my grandfather’s rolling over in his grave right now. But you know, both my grandfathers were fishermen.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  Kathy Fosmark says her family has been in the fishing industry here since the 1830’s. Before California was even a state in the union. Her ancestors were whalers. Today her family fishes mostly for swordfish, which they use gillnets to catch.

KATHY FOSMARK: The majority of our livelihood comes from swordfishing. And all the boats here in Moss Landing that are fishing swordfish– it’ll take a third of their income or more.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: If swordfish fishery disappears off the coast of California, a third of their salary is gone.

KATHY FOSMARK: A third or more, yes. Most of the fishermen would probably go out of business.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  Fosmark admits that marine animals do, at times, get caught in the gillnets on her husband and son’s boats…

KATHY FOSMARK: All fisheries have a bicatch.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  …But she says that swordfishing is already highly regulated.. making them, for example, lower their nets deeper in the ocean so that air breathing marine mammals like dolphins and seals don’t get trapped.

KATHY FOSMARK: If they were to pass this bill all the swordfish would be imported and U.S. jobs would be lost.

MICHAEL VINCENT MCGINNIS: Maritime cultures are endangered today. As much as these fishes are. Or these marine mammals are.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  Michael Vincent McGinnis is an expert on marine policy and a professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. McGuiness is an ecologist at heart, but believes that California must not forget about the fishermen whose livelihoods and way of life hang in the balance.

MICHAEL VINCENT MCGINNIS: The two go hand-in-hand: the fish and the fish story. And I think ideally, we need to make it more equitably about the loss of our– our maritime tradition and the fishing families that are part of that.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  Conservationists, like Geoff Shester, are quick to say that they don’t want gillnet fishermen to lose their livelihood.. they just want them to fish in a different manor, such as using a harpoon. while some fishermen now use harpoons, many commercial fishers dismiss this idea as simply unsustainable.

KATHY FOSMARK: You will not receive enough fish in a catch– for a trip, to make it commercially caught. It would cost too much money to go out there and drive your boat out there to catch one swordfish a day.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: When I spoke to fishermen and brought up the idea of using harpoon, their response was: One fish at a time will put them outa business.

GEOFF SHESTER: Harpooning requires, you know, a lot of skill in order to find the fish, et cetera. And you spend a lotta time searching, right? Whereas a gillnet, you just put it out. And you basically put a net out on a highway– you know, an ocean highway full of traveling everything. And– and it’s a lot easier.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  Marine policy expert Michael Vincent McGinnis says that its unlikely that these gillnet fishermen can easily switch to harpooning. He also points out that Gill net fishing takes place on the coastal waters of every continent, except Anartica. And because these fish and marine mammals migrate back and forth across the ocean, if they are not caught in American gill-nets they may be caught in Chilean or Filipino gillnets.

MICHAEL VINCENT MCGINNIS: It an important part of a puzzle that’s need to be seriously considered strategically. If we’re really interested in protecting sharks and mammals and dolphins and turtles, we need to work together. What happens in our jurisdiction may have an important part of a role in protecting a species, but other countries are still fishing. And they’re still using s– you know, the– the type of gear types that are indiscriminate. That– where you have a high level of bycatch.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Just last month, here in California, the proposed bill to ban gill-nets failed to make it past the Water, Parks, and Wildlife Assembly Committee by just one vote. That means advocates will have to wait till next year to try to end gill-net fishing off the coast of California.