September 15, 2015 / 10:23 PM / 4 years ago

California fishermen decry U.S. caps on whales, turtles snared by gillnets

Sept 15 (Reuters) - California fishermen on Tuesday decried plans by U.S. fisheries managers to limit the number of endangered whales and turtles that can be inadvertently captured in drift gillnets used to catch swordfish in waters off San Diego and Los Angeles.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council on Monday approved a measure capping at two over a two-year period the number of creatures such as sperm whales and loggerhead turtles that can be harmed after becoming entangled in the gillnets, mile-long strands of nylon mesh attached to floats.

Once the limit is reached, swordfish gillnet fishing off California would be suspended for the rest of the season. There currently is no limit endangered whales and turtles.

The plan is expected to gain final approval from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service and come into force as soon as next August. It was praised by environmental groups including Oceana, which wants gillnets banned for the hazards they pose to other sea life that can be snared as “bycatch” and drown.

But gillnetters such as Donald Krebs, captain of the boat Gold Coast based in San Diego, said the measure will put family operations like his out of business.

“It’s sad,” he said of a fleet that has shrunk from dozens of boats to just eight this season amid temporary bans on gillnets last summer and earlier this year. Those bans were ordered to protect loggerheads lured to Southern Californian waters by the ocean-warming pattern known as El Nino.

It was unclear how often gillnets capture endangered mammals such as humpback whales or rare reptiles like leatherback turtles. Krebs said it is exceedingly rare for gillnetters to harm imperiled marine creatures.

“I’ve been doing this for 33 years. There have hardly been any kills whatsoever,” he said of the industry.

The issue came to the fore in 2010 when two protected sperm whales were entangled in gillnets in waters off San Diego. One died and the other was so badly injured U.S. marine biologists predicted it likely would die too after being released.

Kathy Fosmark, whose Portugese ancestors first fished off the California coast in the early 19th century and whose husband and son now man separate swordfish boats based in Monterey Bay, said the caps threaten to end a way of life.

“We’re old school and it’s an attack on our culture by people who probably have never even gotten their feet wet,” she said. (Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Bill Trott)

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