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How a fishing net pits economy against ecology in the struggle to save the ocean

Gillnets are a backbone for the commercial fishing industry. But often, these nets tangle up unintended targets like turtles and sharks.
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Posted at 7:45 PM, Jun 07, 2024

Just off California's southern coast lies a secret no one is trying to keep.

"It's like the Serengeti of the sea right here," Geoff Shester said, gazing off the bow of a transport boat hurtling toward the coast of Anacapa Island. He's the California Campaign Director for Oceana, a group dedicated to preserving the oceans and their marine life.

Anacapa is part of California's Channel Islands, a series of small islands comprising Channel Islands National Park. The islands are so pristine and biodiverse that Shester likes to call them the Galapagos of the north.

"Because they're protected, we kind of get to go back in time to see what California might have looked like, you know, hundreds of years ago before, you know, humans came," Shester said.

The marine sanctuary that protects the waters around Anacapa have helped foster a natural mecca for marine life. This area plays host to the largest congregation of blue whales and boasts more than one hundred species that are found nowhere else on Earth.

"[On the] Southern California Bight we've already done a lot to protect it," Shester says, explaining why this place means so much to the fight to preserve the oceans in the face of climate change. "But it's fragile and I mean, who knows what's going to happen, but if anywhere is going to be resilient, it's going to be a place like this."

As Shester explains it, because these waters can host so many species of life – from kelp forests and coral to giant sea bass and white sharks – it is among the places that offer the best hope for marine life to repopulate when warm oceans wipe out habitats and further dwindle populations.

Despite its protections, Shester worries about the Channel Islands.

"A place like this, there's still so many mysteries, right? There's still so much of the unknown that we're just starting to scratch the surface of," he said. "The idea that we could lose a place like this before we really truly understand it, I mean, that's, that's my biggest fear."

He's alluding to a threat he sees just off the coast of Anacapa: giant fishing nets.

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Gillnets are a backbone for the commercial fishing industry. They're meant to trap fish of varying sizes by their gills. They help the commercial fishing industry bring in millions of dollars a year and keep it employing thousands of people in California alone. But often, these nets tangle up unintended targets: turtles and sharks, for instance.

"Part of the problem is it includes species that are extremely sensitive with low populations that we're trying to see recover, right? Like the juvenile great white sharks, they'll swim right into it and get tangled right on those Nets," Shester said.

That's why Oceana is pushing to ban so-called set gillnets in federal waters of California's coast. Many drift gillnets, which are dragged behind boats, are already off limits in California, and are being phased out federally over the next four years. Set gillnets are stationary and anchored to the bottom of the sea.

But fishermen worry banning set gillnets will put them out of business, and won't impact the root of the problems facing our ocean.

Chris Voss is the president of the Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara. A retired fisherman himself, with a background in fishery management and ecology, he understands the tension in the issue, but he worries a ban on set gillnets will damage an already wounded industry.

"When I started there were over 20,000 commercial fishermen in the state and now there are less than five [thousand]," he said. "Not fishing's not gonna cool the water. Not fishing's not gonna reduce ocean acidification."

He's supportive of a package of regulations working through California's Department of Fish and Wildlife to reduce so-called "bycatch" in big nets; that describes the untargeted marine animals that end up in the nets. He doesn't think, though, that banning set gillnets is a solution.

"I feel that banning gillnets around the Channel Islands would put some fishermen out of business," Voss said

Shester gets it. He knows the commercial fishing industry doesn't like Oceana's proposal. Yet, he thinks he can get enough of them on board to make it happen.

"If we can figure out ways to keep fishermen on the water but do things in a smarter way, that's ultimately going to be the solution because I don't think that the full cost needs to be on the fishing community to do these things," Shester said. "That's why groups like Oceana and other scientists are trying to work on new methods that can be much more targeted and careful about how we fish."

Shester's pitch goes like this: If fishermen can use more targeted approaches to catching the fish they sell, the marine life will flourish, not only better preparing the sea for the worst of climate change, but allowing more fish to spawn and therefore create a bigger population from which to catch. Voss agrees that sustainability is key to a bright future.

"Sustainability is the holy grail," he said. "We want it to stay productive so that, in my case, my son and my grandson and his grandson and his son can be successful well into the future."

It's just a matter of getting everyone on the same page before the clock runs out.

"While there has been a lot of destruction, there are still amazing, beautiful places like this," Shester said. "If we can restore their natural resilience, that's something that we can leave behind for the future."