California's gillnet fisheries: A problem unsolved

Prepared for the California Fish and Game Commission by the Sea Turtle Restoration Project

October 2001


Introduction Overview of the fisheries History since Proposition 132 Swordfish/Thresher Drift Gillnet Fishery White sea bass gillnet fishery Halibut gillnet fishery Miscellaneous gillnet fisheries Solutions and conclusion


The purpose of this paper is to: 1. Demonstrate activity of California's gillnet fisheries off the coast of southern and central California. 2. Demonstrate the inadequacy of monitoring and lack of observer coverage of these fisheries. 3. Provide the best available data substantiating that at least three of the nine California gillnet fisheries have caused significant mortalities of protected species, i.e., those covered under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), Endangered Species Act (ESA), and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). 4. Establish that gillnet fisheries cause mortalities and discard a significant number of targeted and untargeted finfish.


Gillnets are more formally referred to as "gill and trammel nets" by the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG). A trammel net works by entangling the entire fish, not its gills, but the term gillnet suffices for both. All of the swordfish gillnets are "driftnets", that is the nets, when set, drift free in the current. While some of the white sea bass and halibut nets are drift nets, most are "setnets", which means that the nets are secured to the seabed by weights and not allowed to drift.

California has nine distinct gillnet fisheries categorized as "Category I" fisheries (NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS, December 2000, US Pacific Marine Mammal Stock Assessments: 2000, Forney, et. al., page 248, Appendix 1, Table 3). Category I fisheries are defined under the MMPA as fisheries with "frequent serious injury or mortality to marine mammals" (Draft FMP and EIS for the West Coast Based Fisheries for HMS, PFMC, May 2001, chapter 6, page 1). In California's gillnet fisheries, MMPA-funded observer programs have observed past interactions with species also protected by the ESA and MBTA (Julian and Beeson, Fishery Bulletin 96, page 274-277, tables 2-5, 1998). Herring gillnets are not listed as Category I, so they are not discussed here.

The California gillnet fisheries are managed by agencies with overlapping jurisdictions. The California Fish and Game Commission, California Department of Fish and Game, NMFS, the California legislature and the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) all have some level of jurisdiction over most of the nine gillnet fisheries. The exact role and responsibility each of these bodies are in flux. This paper will focus on the three biggest gillnet fisheries in California, which are the only ones that the DFG monitors for NMFS in terms of effort. They are: (1) swordfish gillnet, (2) halibut gillnet and (3) white sea bass gillnet.

There were 223 general gillnet permit holders in California in 2000. Of those 223, 126 also held drift gillnet permits for swordfish and thresher shark (DFG). To fish for swordfish, one must hold both permits. Since not all permit holders are actively fishing, the actual numbers of boats fishing is less than the number of permits.

Effort monitoring is done by estimation using landing receipts and logs (R. Read, DFG, June 2001). A final estimation isn't completed by DFG until June of the following fishing year.

History Since Proposition 132

Proposition 132, which passed in 1990, was a significant step forward in the management of California gillnets. Proposition 132 resulted in lowered gillnet effort through a buyout program, and instituted area closures by moving the fishery farther off shore.

Unfortunately, following these changes, observer coverage of the gillnet fisheries was also reduced, providing managers with inadequate data to determine what changes in these fishery efforts might have on species of special concern.

After 1994, when the gillnet buyouts and closures took full effect as mandated by proposition 132, the 1990-1994 observer program for the halibut gillnet fishery was dropped (NOAA Technical Memorandum, NMFS, December 2000, US Pacific Marine Mammal Stock Assessments: 2000, Forney, et. al., page 27, table 1).

The swordfish gillnets had a separate observer program established in 1990 by NMFS. The white sea bass and other miscellaneous gillnets had an observer program in 1983-1989 by DFG funded by the Sport Fish Restoration Act (SFRA), (Vojkovich, et. al., and unpublished DFG data).

It has been suggested by some that pushing the nets offshore solved the problem. But gillnets that target swordfish are the farthest offshore and yet they have a significant impact on several protected species. There have been time and area closures imposed by state and federal government since 1994, but never on the scale of proposition 132, and no attempt to significantly lower effort. It is unfortunate that due to reduced monitoring, the impact these gillnets are making farther offshore can't be definitively ascertained.

Swordfish/Thresher Drift Gillnet Fishery

Following a decision by the California Fish and Game Commission not to establish a swordfish gillnet fishery in 1980, commercial fishery interests went to the legislature, and convinced it to established the fishery (Draft FMP and EIS for the West Coast Based Fisheries for HMS, (PFMC), May 2001, chapter 2, page 13).

Most recent available data estimate that the fishery included 1,936 days fished by 81 boats in 2000 (R. Read, DFG, June 2001).

This fishery is primarily managed by the state, which put in some regional time and area closures over the past several years to protect salmon and marine mammals. However, In 1996 the Pacific Offshore Cetacean Take Reduction Team was developed to lower marine mammal mortalities in this fishery. Data from the NMFS observer program, established in 1990, was used to ostensibly guide the team's efforts. Experiments with sonar pingers and gear adjustments followed and new rules were instituted based on these studies with mixed results. While there has been a drop in some marine mammal mortalities since 1997, many species continue to die in large numbers in this fishery (Caretta, NMFS, June 2001).

Unfortunately, the rules established to protect marine mammal species did not adequately address the take of four species of sea turtles which have been recorded killed in this fishery, including the threatened loggerhead, the endangered leatherback and presumably endangered population of olive ridley and green turtles. (The Mexican nesting population of these two species are listed as endangered and are most likely to be caught in the California gillnet fisheries. Other populations of these species are listed as threatened.)

Following the filing of a lawsuit to protect endangered sea turtles in 2000, on August 24, 2001, NMFS issued final interim regulations to close an area off northern California and Oregon to drift gillnetting from August 15 to November 15. This was established to protect the leatherback sea turtle, the species most impacted by the swordfish gillnets.

However, concern exists that the data used by NMFS to draw the lines for this time and area closure is incomplete and inadequate (NMFS used the data from only two satellite tagged leatherbacks to come to their conclusion). At this time it is not clear that these rules will reduce takes of the other endangered sea turtle species.

Furthermore, this rule allows gillnetting along the central California coast from August 15 to November 15. This area open to gillnetting has had a history of disproportionately high levels of marine mammal interaction (source, Estimates of marine mammal, turtle, and seabird mortality for two California gillnet fisheries: 1990-1995, Julian and Beeson, Fishery Bulletin 96, page 279, figure 2, 1998). Displaced gillnet effort may be more concentrated there.

Seabird mortality is another area of concern that needs to be addressed.

Albacore tuna, presumably considered a non-target species, is now the third most important species landed in the swordfish fishery both in tonnage and value, as of 1999 (Draft FMP and EIS for the West Coast Based Fisheries for HMS, PFMC, May 2001, chapter 2, page 111-112, tables 2-39 and 2-40). This does not include the 15%-20% of the albacore caught (by count) in swordfish gillnets which is discarded dead due to being mangled in the nets (NMFS, unpublished observer data 1998-2000), further calling into question the effectiveness of gillnet fishing for tuna species. It is unclear if the legislature or commission sanctioned the harvest and sale of albacore by this fishery.

Presumably, the federal government will take over management of the swordfish fishery from the state when the PFMC completes development of its fishery management plan, possibly next year.

Observer Coverage

Currently, just over 20% of the swordfish gillnets are included in an observer program. We believe that the coverage should be increased to 100% to determine if the new rules regulating this fishery are adequate to address the significant and on-going take of marine mammals, endangered and threatened sea turtles, seabirds and non-target fish species.

The White Sea Bass Gillnet Fishery

The White Sea Bass Gillnet fishery is the smallest of the three gillnet fisheries this discussed here. This fishery included 44 vessels fishing for a total of 657 days in 2000 (R. Read, DFG, June 2001). This fishery uses 6"-7" mesh nets. The 1983-1989 SFRA study shows that protected species like seabirds, dolphins and pinnipeds can be entangled in nets with 6"-7" mesh, which is used in both white sea bass and soupfin shark nets.

The most intensive effort of these nets in 2000 was in the Huntington Flats (276 days fished). There was legal action filed by LA commercial fishers that blocked the closure of the gillnet fisheries in Huntington Flats that was mandated by proposition 132. This injunction may be overturned per PFMC decision.

After Huntington Flats, the areas most intensively fished by white sea bass gillnets are, in order, Channel Islands including San Clemente, Santa Barbara, San Nicolas, etc. (196 days fished); off San Diego (45 days); and Cortez and Tanner Banks (26 days). White sea bass nets appeared off Morro Bay, Point Sur and Monterey Bay last year for the first time, and have returned in 2001, targeting albacore. Ventura Flats and the area off Camp Pendleton make up the rest of the effort (R. Read, DFG, June 2001). Where the displaced effort from Huntington Flats might go, if closed, should be of concern.

The white sea bass gillnet fishery also had the highest rate of finfish discard mortalities by any gillnet fishery, 52% (by count for all species observed), as recorded in the 1983-1989 SFRA funded study. This included both targeted and untargeted finfish.

Observer Coverage

An SFRA funded observer program for the White Sea Bass Gillnet fishery occurred from 1983-1989. Cetacean, pinniped and sea bird mortalities were observed through the program (Vojkovich, et. al., and unpublished DFG data). In 1990-1994 and 1999-2000, there were sets of 6"-7" nets observed by NMFS, incidental to halibut gillnet observations. Pinniped, cetacean and seabird interactions were also observed then in 6"-7" nets (NMFS, unpublished data). No other observer program for white sea bass gillnets has been in place since.

The mortalities observed in white sea bass nets in the 1983-89 DFG/SFRA study include:

Common Dolphin 6 Pacific White sided Dolphin 1 Pelagic Cormorant 4 Brandt's " 4 Unidentified " 1 California Sea Lion 7

Of the 7,633 estimated days of effort in the white sea bass gillnet fishery from 1983-1989, 250 were observed (3.3% coverage). More dolphins were observed killed in the white sea bass gillnet fishery in this study (7), than all of the other gillnet fisheries combined (5).

(source, published and unpublished data, 1983-89 DFG/SFRA study).

Due to the fact that these nets and mesh sizes are similar to other gillnets, fishing in the same areas and in similar habitat types, the possibility of interaction with protected species is likely. It is imperative that the State immediately promulgate a monitoring program that provides 100% observer coverage of this fishery.

The Halibut Gillnet Fishery

The Halibut Gillnet fishery is the largest gillnet fishery in California in terms of days fished (4,013 days fished by 67 boats in 2000), the most intensively fished area, after Huntington Flats (1,452 days fished), was the Ventura Flats, with 1,200 days fished. The other areas fished were roughly the same as the white sea bass gillnets, but in higher numbers

Halibut nets use 8.5" mesh. As a result, these nets entangle more protected species, both in overall numbers and in numbers of different species than 6"-7" mesh nets (Caretta, NMFS, June 2001).

NMFS continues to estimate the mortalities for protected species in the southern California halibut gillnets, despite the fact that no observer program has been in place for six years (see below). Based on 1994 data, NMFS mortality estimates established for 2000 are:

Unidentified common dolphin 3 California sea lion 1237 Harbor seal 334 Northern elephant seal 29 Unidentified pinniped 28

Loggerhead turtle 2 Green turtle 3 Leatherback turtle 2 Unidentified turtle 2

Common murre 2 Brandt's cormorant 108

(Caretta, NMFS, June 2001)

In addition, the finfish discard mortalities, by count, for all species in the halibut gillnet fishery as recorded by the 1990-1994 NMFS observer program, was 27% (NMFS, unpublished data). This does not include those counted as "returned unknown" (presumably injured).

The sea turtle mortality estimates are of extreme concern. The present NMFS biological opinion on the impacts of the CA swordfish fishery and HI longline fishery for leatherbacks is a "jeopardy" opinion, and these fisheries are only allowed to operate under a "reasonable and prudent alternative" that minimizes jeopardizing this species with imminent extinction.

Observer Program

The halibut gillnet fishery had an observer monitoring program until 1994, when it was cancelled. In 1999-2000, a limited observer program was reinstituted in the Monterey area. The observed mortalities of a significant number of common murres and a sea otter were brought to light by a notice of intent to sue and resulted in the closure of all gillnets north of Point Conception out to 60 fathoms in May, 2001 by DFG.

This fishery must have 100% observer monitoring program in place immediately to determine the impact of this fishery on protected species.

Furthermore, we believe this fishery should be the next to be considered by the Commission under the MLMA master plan. We feel it should be the next FMP to be developed for the Commission's consideration, given its impact on the southern California marine environment. Like the white sea bass gillnets, the displaced effort from Huntington Flats should be of concern.

Miscellaneous gillnet fisheries

The 6 other gillnet fisheries have no effort monitoring or observer program. They need further investigation. They are listed below with the mesh size:

Barracuda 3.5" Leopard shark 7"- 9" Perch/Croaker 3.5"- 4" Rockfish 4.5"- 7.5" Soupfin shark 6"- 8.5" Miscellaneous shark 6"- 14"

(source, NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS, December 2000, US Pacific Marine Mammal Stock Assessments: 2000, Forney, et. al., page 248, Appendix 1, Table 3)

Solutions and conclusion

In the case of the gillnet fisheries under the Commission's purview, an immediate closure can be recommended to the Department until such time as an observer program determines these fisheries comply with the various state and federal laws which protect marine mammals, migratory birds and sea turtles. The Department may either go to the legislature for immediate funds for observer programs, or have the legislature mandate that the industry pays for it. The Department may also work with various constituents to get the federal government to institute an observer program. Fishermen participating in Category I fisheries are required to be registered under MMPA and if selected, to accommodate an observer aboard their vessels (Draft FMP and EIS for the West Coast Based Fisheries for HMS, PFMC, May 2001, chapter 6, page 2). A comprehensive strategy by the Department and Commission for all of the state's Category I fisheries is needed in order to insure a precautionary approach to fishery management, and to avoid the emergence of new Category I fisheries in the future. If the various agencies continue to consider these fisheries separately in a piecemeal fashion, there is every opportunity for fishers to move from one gillnet fishery to another. Thus shifting effort by time, space and species targeted, and thus shifting impacts on protected species as well.

Effort monitoring needs more attention also. VMS, dockside interviews and random checks of boats on the water should be considered. This, of course, would not be necessary if 100% observer coverage is instituted.

The Commission must also be on guard that fishing gear not rated under the MMPA as Category I may also expand in an unregulated manner if gillnet effort is eliminated or reduced. The current halibut trawl fishery in California has no observer program. Expansion of that alternative would not be sufficiently precautionary until such time current effort is observed. Fish and invertebrate traps also have been documented to have killed sea turtles and some marine mammals both in California and worldwide. A photo is in STRP's possession that shows a leatherback mortality, snared by a crab trap line in California. This gear not only should not be allowed to expand unmonitored, but current effort in the lobster, crab and finfish traps should have more oversight.