Fisheries council considers West Coast longline moratorium

By Don Thompson, The Associated Press
Friday March 15, 2002

SACRAMENTO — A federal fisheries council recommended an indefinite moratorium Thursday on the use of longlines off the entire West Coast. 

A typical longline boat lays thousands of baited hooks over miles of ocean to catch tuna and swordfish. Environmental and recreational fishing organizations, along with federal regulators, say the practice frequently catches turtles, sea birds, marine mammals and protected fish. 

But they worry Thursday’s action by the Pacific Fishery Management Council may one day open the door to a commercial fishing industry proposal to let 10 boats experiment with longline fishing within West Coast waters. The council regulates the ocean from three to 200 miles off California, Oregon and Washington. 

California and Washington ban longline fishing, while Oregon is experimenting with longline fishing 25 miles off shore. 

The pending moratorium would be the first by one of the eight regional councils that manage fishing in U.S. coastal waters. The council’s plan, expected to receive final consideration in November, would have to be approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service. 

Conservation and sport fishing groups want an outright ban on longlining. However, council members voted Thursday for a moratorium instead, with possible re-evaluation if researchers find ways to reduce the snagging of unintended fish, birds and turtles. 

The pending plan also would close a loophole that lets West Coast-based longliners fish in restricted areas off Hawaii. 

Thursday’s vote “keeps the door open for longlining,” said David Wilmot, director of the Ocean Wildlife Campaign made up of six national conservation organizations. “There’s a lot of time now for mischief to occur.” 

Commercial fishermen argue that longlining could snag fewer unintended species than the floating gill nets that still would be permitted in coastal waters. 

Objections from environmental and recreational fishing organizations “seem to be based more on emotion and politics than objective, scientific fact,” argued Chuck Janisse, manager of the Federation of Independent Seafood Harvesters (FISH). 

Trading gill nets for longlines “is like arguing that cyanide fishing on coral reefs is less damaging than dynamite fishing,” countered Wilmot. 

Supporters and opponents agree the council’s decision will have significan ce in the larger international debate over the use of longlines. 

Janisse said a West Coast moratorium or ban would be inconsistent with other regions where longlining is permitted. 

But the pending plan would end an inconsistency in regulations governing West Coast and Hawaii-based commercial fishermen. 

Large areas of the North Pacific have been closed to longlining to protect turtles and albatrosses. Vessels based on the West Coast are not currently bound by the Hawaii regulations, but would be under the pending plan. 

The plan is the subject not only of environmental, but economic debate. 

Deep-sea fishing operations say commercial fishing is hurting sport fish populations and what they say is a $2.5 billion annual sport-fishing industry in California alone. 

Commercial fishermen challenge that economic estimate, but say they’ve been outgunned by sport fishermen. 

“All we have is a token fishery here on the West Coast — particularly in California,” said Pete DuPuy of Ventura, a FISH director who spent 70 of the last 90 days at sea. “What they’re doing here is not going to do anything for the fish population. All it’s doing is hurting the fishermen and the consumer.” 

Because the fish migrate great distances to feed and breed, he argued commercial fishing should be regulated with international treaties, not geographic restrictions. 

Environmental groups, to the contrary, see the pending West Coast restriction — the culmination of what has been nearly three years of debate — as a prelude to outlawing longlining elsewhere in U.S. waters, and ultimately worldwide. 


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