Stop the Loss of Ocean Wildlife

Scuba diving as a young child mesmerized me. Whether a first-hand experience using scuba gear or a dazzling National Geographic documentary, looking below the waves allows a person to see a world they depend on, and one that depends upon them.

Sperm whales impressively dive to depths of 3,000 feet to feed, humpback whales dazzle with their acrobatic breaches, and elusive leatherback sea turtles hunt for jellyfish. These marine animals, among many others, are an integral part of the water planet we call home. These species have inherent value as breathtaking animals and they are part of an ecosystem that generates tens of billions of dollars in revenue to California and other states as part of the coastal and ocean economy.

However, these majestic animals and the coastal economy face a looming threat under the crashing waves... drift gillnets that target swordfish off the California coast. This antiquated fishing gear soaks in the ocean overnight to capture swordfish and thresher sharks. These nets, stretching a mile in length and sitting 200 feet beneath the ocean's surface, also capture whales, dolphins, sea turtles, seas lions, seals, and many species of sharks and other fish. Once entangled, air-breathing animals are unable to surface and they drown. Other animals are injured and killed in the massive curtains of net. This wasteful fishing method throws overboard more marine life than it keeps.

We all have an impact on the world around us. We must decide whether we are part of the solution or part of the problem. I implore fishery managers who have responsibility over how this fishery operates to be part of the solution.

In a time of innovation and sustainability there is no reason to use damaging and wasteful fishing practices. The vision for a West Coast swordfish fishery should be one that continues to provide a domestic seafood product and provides fishermen with profitability in a way that is much safer for ocean wildlife.

Alternative fishing gears exist that can accomplish this vision. It is in the hands of fishery managers to make the necessary change. A transition plan must be established that helps fishermen switch out old drift gillnets for cleaner gear types like harpoons and buoy gear, two fishing methods that drastically reduce capture of unintended species and provide fishermen with a higher price per pound for their catch.

Federal fishery managers meet this week to determine whether to place limits on the numbers of nine whale, sea turtle, and dolphin species that can be injured or killed by drift gillnets before the fishery shuts down for the remainder of the season. Establishing caps on the number of these species that can be allowably captured is urgently needed to help safeguard wildlife. But these limits should only serve as a temporary action while a permanent transition to clean fishing gears is made.

We can have both abundant marine wildlife populations and sustainable fisheries. It just requires thoughtful, responsible leadership. And the time is now.