World Sea Turtle Day — Celebrate Conservation Successes!

Friday was International Sea Turtle Day! To honor our hard- and soft-shelled marine reptile friends, I’d like to try and clear up a confusing news story that went viral one week ago, at the start of NOAA’s Sea Turtle Week. Amidst a challenging time to filter accurate tidbits of news, I feel a responsibility as a scientist to help guide concerned readers to facts. Still, we may not all agree on the best ways to protect sea turtles, but here are some cold hard facts to inform your opinion.

For a good part of last year, I worked with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center as a Sea Grant Science & Policy Fellow looking specifically at dynamic ocean management. I took a deep dive into a case study fishery, the one that was highlighted in several confusing news articles in rampant circulation last week regarding “slashes” to endangered whale and sea turtle protections. Every article that I have encountered (and there are many) tout the Trump Administration’s heavy hand (read: Executive Order) at “sidelining” a bycatch hard cap rule proposed by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council in 2015. There are only tiny truths thread throughout the framing of this issue.

The first thing I’d like to clear up is this: The Trump Administration had nothing to do with this decision. NOT A THING. Yes, it is true that the U.S. President’s last name is Trump, but it would not have mattered who was in office last week — the economic analysis of the proposed hard cap rule was underway long before (years!) the 2017 Presidential election, and the rule would have been found unwarranted regardless.

If you have a few minutes, allow me to walk you through what’s really going on, and to tell the story that should have been highlighted last week and on World Sea Turtle Day. I urge you to be open-minded to the realization that it’s probably not (nearly) as bad as you have been made to believe. In fact, I hope by the end of my meandering that you will join me in celebrating sea turtle conservation successes, instead of wallowing in the gloom and doom of this unfortunate and inaccurate news thread.

You might think that because I spent almost a year of my life thinking about California’s extremely controversial drift gillnet swordfish fishery that I am an expert. You’d be wrong. There are talented folks from all sorts of organizations and agencies that have dedicated many years of their life to reducing marine mammal and sea turtle “bycatch”—the unintentional capture of one of those protected species while trying to catch another marketable species, like swordfish. Those people fall on every side of this issue that you can imagine, and I spent my time learning from all of those people and trying to see all sides. So in this case, I am aiming to be the messenger that can bridge the gap between the folks burning the midnight oil to fix the bycatch problem (including the fishermen themselves), and you. I am not speaking on behalf of any of them, including NOAA, but I am sharing my understanding of the problem and the solutions.

So here’s the deal. In the 1990s we (the greater we) realized that the drift gillnet swordfish fishery off the Pacific coast of the U.S. was really doing a number on sea turtles and marine mammals, which are protected under federal law. That means we know we shouldn’t be killing them (by the hundreds!), even by accident (“bycatch”), because their populations are so low they can’t survive those deaths. Accidental captures really mess with the fishing gear, too, because they are big animals and they are no fun to try and free at-sea (at night) when you’re under a time crunch to catch as many swordfish as you can. Lots of variables to manage. To be clear: no one wants to kill sea turtles and marine mammals; it’s a lose-lose-lose situation. So things needed to change, and NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service and the Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC, the collaborative governing body that directs fishing activities for Washington, Oregon, and California) worked with the States and the fishing industry to switch things up. At the same time, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were freaking out (understandably) that the problem wasn’t being fixed faster, and so they began campaigning, which sometimes included/s suing the federal government for violations of the Marine Mammal Protection and Endangered Species Acts, for fast(er) and strict(er) regulations.

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Source: NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region Observer program records.

While perhaps not at a pace satisfying to NGOs and others, the result is that since the 90s, many regulations have been layered onto this fishery. So much so that the fishery itself has decreased dramatically, both in number of actively permitted gillnets in the water, and the physical area in which drift gillnetting is allowed. There is now no swordfish gillnetting allowed in State waters (from the land out to three nautical miles), and multiple time-area closures to specifically protect leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles have shifted and shrunk the swordfish fishing area to the Southern California Bight. There have also been gear modifications; and trained observers go onboard fishing vessels to independently monitor and record bycatch for enforcement.

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Sea turtle bycatch is now very low in the CA drift gillnet fishery. See Technical Memorandum for full details.

While all of these regulations have been debated ad nauseum before and after their implementation, and management of this fishery is still controversial to this day, it means one undeniable truth. If you eat a Pacific swordfish at a restaurant in the U.S. today, you are either eating a fish that was caught in one of the most heavily managed and sustainable fisheries on the west coast (inclusive of the Hawaiian fishery); or, you are eating an imported fish from another country that likely has fewer or no bycatch regulations at all. It is not discussed often enough that the latter is most often the case.

The dynamic of piling on top-down management measures which are met with frustration and distraught from drift gillnet swordfish fishermen has played out like a broken record since the mid-90s. The regulations and their enforcement that stand today have undergone a rigorous public policy process. Importantly, they have been wildly successful at reducing sea turtle and marine mammal bycatch down to virtually zero. Virtually zero is not zero, and this is where we are today in this fishery’s bycatch debate.

In 2014, the PFMC proposed a “hard cap” regulation that would have been implemented in addition to the temporal and spatial closures, gear changes and observations already in place (and that have been and are working quite well). Hard caps have been effective in reducing bycatch in the Hawaiian shallow-set longline swordfish fishery, so this idea didn’t come out of the blue. A hard cap regulation limits the number of protected animals a fishery can interact with; if the limit is met (in Hawaii the cap is 46 loggerheads, which was increased from 17 in 2012), the fishery is immediately closed for the season. A closure would mean a big economic hit to the fishery and the market.

A few things to consider: 1) There were some issues regarding setting the bycatch hard cap limits based on science that are too arduous to go into here, but the take-home is that science-based management is always preferred. 2) NMFS is mandated to support fisheries and economic growth while minimizing negative affects to protected species (sea turtles! whales!). This is a tall order and it’s often interesting to put yourself in the shoes of people on the other side of the table when weighing options. 3) The PFMC’s role (and it is an important one!) is to facilitate a public process to manage fisheries. However, it is not charged with managing bycatch or enforcing federal laws; NMFS is. Instituting hard caps to manage bycatch just because the PFMC suggested to do so would have set a dangerous precedent. 4) Bycatch is a global issue and compared to many other nations, the U.S. is knocking it outta the park. Not to say it is not still a problem in the U.S.; it most certainly is. But if you have the option of fixing the problem and supporting the home team versus exporting the problem and importing unsustainable seafood… I think you see where I’m going with this.

But in case not: The U.S. is the largest consumer of swordfish in the world, but less than 5% of swordfish consumed in the U.S. comes from the California swordfish fishery. Is the bycatch problem for swordfish fishing a California problem? No, it is not. This is because the regulations in place are working, and the story that should have been run last Monday and thereafter is that NOAA has deliberated the proposed hard caps and concluded that they are not necessary. It would take a disproportionate amount of resources (time, money, agony) to implement and enforce hard caps relative to the number of bycatch animals they would save. Instead, NOAA and partners are doing something way better, in my opinion. They are improving the existing regulations to improve efficacy all around—what a concept!

More is not always better.

To read a news article that managed to capture the dynamics of the real story better, see the Daily Breeze.


Existing time-are closures of the CA drift gillnet fishery to protect sea turtles. Source: NMFS.

To finish this meander and reach the promised celebration, I want to provide an example of how NOAA and partners—including the fishermen—are improving one of the existing regulations. One of the time-area closures in place is called the Pacific Loggerhead Conservation Area (LCA), and it is only implemented during El Niño conditions because that is when loggerheads are known to venture north into the Southern California Bight, chasing the warm water to feed on pelagic red crabs. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you have probably heard that the weather and sea conditions on the U.S. Pacific coast have been unusual since 2013. This resulted in the closure of the LCA to swordfish fishing. While not El Niño conditions, there were similar characteristics, like warm water. When the “El Niño rule” was written, we had only seen loggerheads in the Bight during El Niño years. But now we know that loggerheads can occur in the Bight during non-El Niño years, too, and so the rule needs updating. Instead of specifying “El Niño,” it should state specifically state the conditions and physical area that will attract turtles, as best we understand those dynamics.

So that’s good, NOAA & friends are doing that. But they are actually going even further! They are developing a dynamic management tool that will predict loggerhead habitat based on water temperature so that problem areas are only closed when necessary, and otherwise open for fishing. This tool will improve an existing regulation that already works well, and it will ensure that the time-area closure is only implemented when it needs to be (i.e., when turtles and gillnets might overlap). To that, I say kudos to NOAA!

I repeat: all of this, including analyzing the necessity of hard caps, was well underway before Trump was elected. The forgoing of potential hard caps for bycatch in the west coast drift gillnet swordfish fishery and Trump’s perceived neglect of sea turtle and marine mammal protections have little to nothing to do with each other. I am not saying that either of those things are untrue; the former is in fact true. I am saying that the mass majority of news stories on this topic last week muddled this issue and inaccurately framed it as a way to jab at Trump. This resulted in a confused and agitated public. While we have much to gripe about these days {personally, I am upset about hits to science and conservation and women and lots of other stuff}, this bycatch issue is not one of them! This is actually a conservation success story, particularly for sea turtles. I’m not sure you can view it as a success story for the swordfish fishery, but that is another can of worms. But what I can say with confidence, from one sour face to another, is that the ‘outrage over an unnecessary regulation to an already highly regulated fishery’ can of worms is not where you should be focusing your sour faces. Chalk this up to crappy news and turn to the plethora of way more urgent issues that demand our sour faces.



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