On August 10th, The California Coastal Commission unanimously rejected a proposal to grant one fishing company a short-term permit to use longlines to target swordfish off the U.S. West Coast from Santa Barbara north into Oregon.
Longline fishing (using a line tens of miles long with thousands of baited hooks) has been banned off California in U.S. waters out to 200 miles for 30 years. The National Marine Fisheries Service (the federal agency whose job it is to manage fisheries) recommended granting the permit as an experiment to determine economic feasibility. The Commission found the proposal inconsistent with the California Coastal Act’s mandate to protect ocean wildlife and habitats; about half or more of the catch would be unwanted, incidentally killed animals, including sea turtles, marine mammals, seabirds, and fishes (see http://documents.coastal.ca.gov/reports/2007/8/F4e-8-2007.pdf)
Note that both management bodies were looking at two totally different questions: economic viability on the one hand, sustainable use and values like waste on the other. Yes, longlining is economically viable, especially if only one boat is doing it. And yes, it can be unacceptably wasteful, especially if a critically endangered species is involved.
How much waste is too much, is open to question. But how much economic viability is enough is also open to question. In the Atlantic, long-lining has destroyed or is destroying the economic viability of most of its own fisheries because too many boats got involved. And world-wide many longline operations appear to lose money (according to an unpublished 2002 analysis by C. Dumas: “The Economics of Pelagic Longline Fishing in the U.S. and Canada: a Brief Overview.” email@example.com). Plus, the feds were proposing that taxpayers fund observers on each trip, raising the question of how much taxpayers should subsidize fishing, And then there’s the paradox of putting endangered species at higher risk while the U.S. governement has a mandate to protect endangered species.
One main player who did not testify was Leatherback Turtle, a thousand-pound monster that is critically endangered in the Pacific. One of the biggest controversies about the federal proposal is that the permit would have allowed fishing within a federally designated “Leatherback Turtle Conservation Zone.” Leatherback populations in the Pacific have fallen a catastrophic 95 percent or so since the early 1980s. Incredibly, Leatherback Turtles that breed in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands come all the way to the U. S. West Coast to feed on their equally incredible preferred prey: stinging jellyfish. Speaking on the Leatherback’s behalf were various environmental groups (e.g. Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana, The Ocean Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife and Turtle Island Restoration Network and others). Listening to what this turtle’s silent decline tells us about the ocean is the subject of my book, “Voyage of the Turtle.”
Of course, some feared that if the experiment was to prove economic viability, and the permitted fishing operation made money, then the only rational response to the success of the experiment would be (if you’re a fisheries agency) to allow more fishing, more boats, more gear in the water, more death and waste. And gearing up for long-lining costs tens of thousands of dollars. Would a fishing business that invested the money in an experiment want to give up just because they killed some sea lions, turtles, or birds?
To me, the proposal to allow the fishing “experiment” seemed like too much public trouble and expense for too little public benefit—and perhaps even too little private benefit, for that matter. I feel bad thinking about the frustration of the commercial fishermen involved; they’re good people and they’re looking for new ways to make money like most businesses. They’re being squeezed by regulations, catch rates—and thousands of foreign competitors who don’t care about either turtles or regulations. Billions of baited hooks go into the ocean annually to put seafood on people’s plates, and turning down this one permit application won’t solve all the ocean’s problems.
None of this is easy. But considering the details, I think the Commission made the right call to deny the permit.