A regulation to protect whales and turtles in West coast fisheries was set to go into effect until the Trump administration scrapped it on Monday, claiming it was overly burdensome.

The rule, to be implemented by the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was proposed by the fishing industry's Pacific Fishery Management in 2015 and sought to curb the use of mile-long gill nets for up to two fishing seasons if too many whales and turtles were getting caught in them.

If whales weren’t getting caught in the nets, which are meant to catch swordfish, then the restriction wouldn’t go into effect. Further, other nets would be able to be used in this period and the regulation would only affect up to 20 fishing vessels.

It just so happens that 2016 ended up being an especially hazardous year for whales — at least 71 got entangled in gillnets, the highest total ever recorded since the NOAA began assessing the situation in 1982. Many of the whales that the rule would have protected have seen their numbers plummet to the low hundreds.

The regulation would have been enacted had the National Marine Fisheries Service not intervened at the last minute to eliminate it, a move that aligns with the Trump administration’s overarching mission to unravel regulations.  

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The group opposed the regulation because it claimed it would be economically harmful. Ironically, it was the body representing the fishing vessels who proposed the rule in the first place.

The National Marine Fisheries Service also said other voluntary measures such as placing warning devices that ping on the nets were enough to prevent entanglements. Whales travel with the help of echolocation, and regularly fail to detect gillnets, so warning devices can make nets apparent.  

"The bottom line is this is a fishery that's worked hard to reduce its impact," Michael Milstein, a federal representative, told NBC.

Mile-long fishing nets are not very discriminating — they catch, impede, or bother everything that swims toward them. 

For whales, these gargantuan nets are especially dangerous. Many whales, as they cruise through ocean waters, end up getting tangled up in them. Once stuck, whales panic and struggle to get free, getting more tangled in the process. Sometimes, whales drown or starve while stuck, but in all cases, the experience is traumatizing both physically and mentally.

“Killing endangered whales to catch swordfish off the California coast is a crime against nature and needs to stop immediately,” said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network, in a statement.

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Humpback whales are the species that get caught in the nets the most and they also happen to be endangered.

Image: Danielle Cholewiak, NOAA NEFSC

Sea turtles, seals, sea lions, dolphins, sharks, and other marine left routinely get caught in the nets as well.

The Fisheries Service has in the past shut down whole areas of water to fishing to protect endangered loggerhead turtles and, for marine advocates, this shows that sensible regulation doesn’t diminish economic opportunity.  

Further, simply enacting the latest regulation might have compelled fishing vessels to take more precautions so as to avoid the net ban.

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The waters off the West coast will now no longer see this potential change, and if the past two years are any indication, the number of whales getting entangled will keep going up.  

“The situation has gotten worse in recent years, and it’s frustrating that the federal government hasn’t done what’s needed to protect whales along the West Coast,” Catherine Kilduff, an attorney with the Center on Biological Diversity said in a statement.


Defend the Planet

A Rule to Keep Endangered Whales, Turtles Out of Nets Was Just Scrapped by the Trump Administration

By Joe McCarthy