The Most Responsible U.S. Shark Fishery Should be Exemplified, not Targeted

On February 20, 2014 Assemblymember Paul Fong (D-San Jose) and others introduced legislation (AB 2019) to ban California’s drift gillnet (DGN) fishery for swordfish and sharks. The bill sponsors, Oceana and the Turtle Island Restoration Network, claim CA gillnets are “curtains of death” that indiscriminately kill more than “100 marine mammals every year.” Now if those loaded statements don’t tug on your heart, the graphic images presented to the Legislature and distributed via the internet of marine mammals caught as bycatch in the CA DGN fishery just might have done the job.


If you know little to nothing about the CA DGN fishery then this new bill probably sounds like a great thing to you. When people read about this bill, most probably think of it as a no-brainer. This is no accident. But I’m sorry to say that this particular bill and the motivation behind it may be the single most complex and misunderstood fisheries issue that I know of at the moment. Even worse, I believe it will harm ocean health more than it will help. This campaign is a well thought out, calculated plan that has been in the works for several years by Geoff Shester at Oceana and others.


The bill is being funded by a recent $3million donation from Leonardo DiCaprio to Oceana. “It is my hope that this grant will help Oceana continue the tremendous work that they do daily on behalf of our oceans,” DiCaprio said in a press release. That is the hope, but is this money being used wisely? Could it have been better spent elsewhere?


If you have not yet read my 2-part series on why I support the CA DGN fishery then I urge you to please do so before reading on. It focuses on the background and success stories of CA DGN fishery and why I support it, which relates to my views here. If you want to earn extra credit then please view some workshop materials regarding this fishery. I’d rather focus this post on a few of the reasons why I, an avid and dedicated ocean conservationist, am against AB 2019.


Desperate and Dishonest

When I said AB 2019 is a well thought out, calculated plan I meant it, but not in a good way. In August 2012 Oceana filed a petition for additional federal and state protection of white sharks under the Endangered Species Act in California (ESA). This baffled shark scientists who study white sharks for a living and believe white shark populations are on the rise in California. Even worse, an ESA listing of white sharks in California would actually make it harder, if not impossible for some researchers to obtain permits for the much needed additional research of white sharks.


ESA protection status for white sharks in CA means that any fishery gear that comes in contact with white sharks in CA would be effectively eliminated, in this case the DGN fishery which rarely catches young juvenile white sharks on accident and cooperates with researchers to release them alive.


So why did Oceana file this petition? Was it to save sharks or shut down the CA DGN fishery? I called Geoff Shester at Oceana last year to ask him just that, and our conversation deeply saddened me. I said to him, “Geoff, you are a smart guy. You know white sharks do not need ESA protection and you know their population is on the rise here, so what are you trying to do? What do you want?” He answered, “ I want to shut down the gillnet fishery.”


Images of dead marine mammals may be disturbing, but what I find even more disturbing is the blatant dishonesty of Shester’s actions. Not to mention all the time and funds that our state and government waste having to analyze these types of ill-advised petitions to protect themselves from future litigation from the groups that filed them.


NOAA rejected the federal petition in July 2013 after a one-year review stating among other things that the CA DGN fishery posed little to no threat on our white shark populations. The state (California Department of Fish & Wildlife) will announce their one-year review and evaluation of the petition by the end of February 2014. I expect they will reject it, and I think Shester does, too.


The timing of AB 2019 and the history of Geoff Shester and Oceana’s repeated failures to kill an already crippled CA fishery, tells me that AB 2019 is Shester’s last-ditch effort to save his own job at Oceana.


The Approach

There are currently 19 active permits in CA to target sharks and swordfish with DGN gear. The language of the bill states these permits will be replaced with generic permits that allow the capture of sharks and swordfish, but requires switching to more selective gear (hand-held hook and line or handthrusted harpoon). In addition to this, the bill opens the door to additional permits to anyone who wants to catch sharks (who did not previously own one of the 19 permits) but only if they use the suggested selective gear. The bill also reopens the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area (PLCA), a pelagic reserve spanning 230,000 square miles designed to protect migrating sea turtles that come here to feed off jellyfish to anyone with this new, generic shark and swordfish permit.


This may sound like the potential for a free-for-all with additional shark-catching permits issued coupled with the reopening of a pelagic reserve. Sounds potentially good for fishermen, right? Nope, it’s just carefully written language that makes it appear as though fishermen have a viable alternative. While the new suggested selective gear looks good on paper, the problem is that it’s not feasible for fishermen to make a profit using that gear.


The other angle of AB 2019’s launch that I oppose is the use of graphic images of dead marine mammals. They were disturbing to look at, and that’s why they were used. It’s a real cheap shot and a low blow. Reminds me of one of those Sarah McLachlan dog commercials that I just can’t look at, or some graphic PETA ad. This is a desperate, extremist conservation tactic at its worst. Imagine if we had to look at images of all the other animals that are killed domestically and internationally to support us great humans? No thanks. Stay classy Oceana.


Nothing is perfect. No fisheries are perfect. There is always a give and take. The silver lining is that the CA DGN fishery is easily the most heavily regulated and possibly most sustainable shark fishery in the world. Without it, what example do other nations with little to zero management, enforcement and observation have to follow, especially when they have to fill an increased market demand?


Wasting Donations

I recently learned of this website. When you register for a free account you will see the CEO of Oceana, Andy Sharpless took home $242,612 of your donation money in 2012. Must be nice. A simple search will also reveal that Sharpless is among 9 other executives at Oceana that earned a combined $1,598,613 in 2012. Oceana spent $894,836 on travel expenses alone in 2012. The salaries of these top 10 executives at Oceana and the travel expenses in one year alone equal close to Leonardo DiCaprio’s generous $3mil donation. Perhaps Oceana should use donations for actual effective ocean conservation rather than using it for personal agenda? Or maybe Oceana should focus on lowering their overhead a tad? Or how about just being honest? Sigh.


This is just the beginning of my fight against AB 2019. If you want to join me please contact me or stay tuned for my next post to learn more.

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