Christopher Neely covers a mixed beat that includes the environment, water politics, and Monterey County's Board of Supervisors. He began at the Weekly in 2021 after five years on the City Hall beat in Austin, TX.

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Christopher Neely here, feeling jarred by some of the data revealed in an analysis by the Monterey branch of global ocean advocacy group, Oceana Inc., on the amount of unintentional slaughter that happens when swordfish boats employ drift gillnets. 

Drift gillnets are a notoriously indiscriminate tool for fishing. The nets hang vertically in the water column and the mesh of the net is sized so that a specific fish can fit their head through the net but not their bodies. The nets can be 100 feet tall and over a mile long, so it’s no surprise that they unintentionally catch and kill other fish and marine life. Regulations are in place so that boats have to report this unintentional catch, known as bycatch, to authorities. 

Oceana’s analysis found there is a pervasive issue of underreporting bycatch in the swordfish industry. They estimate that between 2001 and 2018, 98 percent of marine mammal bycatch and 100 percent of sea turtle bycatch were not reported when there was no designated bycatch observer on the boat—observers are only present on about 20 percent of fishing trips. Oceana is neck-deep in an advocacy effort to push for more observer coverage and stricter caps on bycatch levels for swordfishing boats using drift gillnets, appearing yesterday in front of the federal Pacific Fishery Management Council to make their case. 

This is a part of a larger effort underway to transform fishing into a cleaner, safer and ultimately more sustainable industry. What’s maybe more shocking than the level of unreported bycatch is the fact that California is the only state that still allows for the use of these drift gillnets. Thanks to legislation passed in 2018, California is working to phase out drift gillnet permits by 2024, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s bill, which would ban the use of drift gillnets in federal waters, passed the Senate this fall and has made it through a House committee. 

This movement against drift gillnets has been able to gain momentum not just because of bycatch numbers, says Oceana senior scientist Geoff Shester, but because there is now a viable solution at the other end, in the form of deep set buoy gear. This relatively new method of catching swordfish targets the species at depths around 1,200 feet and essentially eliminates bycatch and unintended harm to protected species. 

This is where Monterey Bay comes in. The bay here has been closed off to drift gillnet fishing for years thanks to federal protections around the leatherback sea turtle. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries is scheduled to finalize a regulation in spring 2022 that would allow open access for swordfish boats using deep set buoy gear in waters north of Point Conception. This means Monterey Bay would be open again to swordfish fishing. 

However, it remains to be seen whether this will find success in Monterey Bay. Swordfish migrate through the area during the fall and early winter—a season of rough waters along the Central Coast. Such conditions aren’t ideal for deep set buoy gear, but the National Marine Fisheries showing an appetite for it could unlock the potential for a long-dormant industry. 

-Christopher Neely, staff writer, christopher@mcweekly.com

P.S. The Monterey County Gives! campaign is currently underway through Dec. 31. Today's Spotlight is Sea Otter Classic Foundation, which is raising money to support its project of getting more e-bikes into the hands of veterans, creating a fleet for sustainable transportation. Learn about their important work—and that of 169 other nonprofits—in this year's campaign, and please donate to support their efforts. And you can read more about Sea Otter Classic Foundation here.

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