Energy & Environment

Court rules against Trump administration on gillnet ban rollback

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The Trump administration’s move to end regulations on a fishing technique in California known to ensnare and kill sea turtles and whales has been ruled unlawful.

U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner late Friday ruled that the federal government “exceeded its authority” when it withdrew a rule in June 2017 that initially suspended the use of swordfish gillnets off the coast of Southern California if any bycatch limits were exceeded.

{mosads}The previous proposal had fisherman place numerical limits on the accidental catches of bottlenose dolphins, four species of whales and four species of sea turtles that are frequently caught in gillnets. If those limits were exceeded, the fisheries were then mandated to cease use of the technique altogether.

The judge’s ruling sends the proposal back to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and orders the agency under the Commerce Department to either finalize the rule as proposed or consult with the Pacific Fishery Management Council on any revisions.

The rule was initially endorsed by the council in 2015 and formally proposed for implementation by the NMFS in 2016. It was expected to gain final approval as a federal regulation until the Trump administration intervened.

The president, under the advice of the Commerce Department, argued that the cost to the fishing industry would be too burdensome and outweighed conservation needs.

An NMFS spokesperson said the agency is still reviewing the ruling.

Conservationists had argued against the administration’s decision, and environmental group Oceana sued, saying the Commerce Department violated U.S. fisheries laws and the federal Administrative Procedures Act. Washington state also filed an amicus brief with the court in support of the lawsuit.

Drift nets are frequently linked to the deaths of sea turtles and marine mammals, including whales and sea lions. Fishermen use them by hanging the nets like walls above the seafloor. They often indiscriminately catch whatever flows into them.

“Any fishery that throws away more than it keeps needs to change, especially a fishery that is killing some of the world’s most remarkable — and most endangered — marine species,” said Geoff Shester, senior scientist for Oceana, in a statement Friday.

“The state of California and the public agree — drift gillnets are an unnecessary and unsustainable way to catch swordfish, and it’s long past time to get these nets out of the water and move to cleaner and better ways to catch fish.”

In September, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed into law a ban on commercial fishers using shark or swordfish drift gillnets, as well as troll lines and hand lines that are more than 900 feet in length unless they are used as set lines.

Earlier this spring Democratic California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, along with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) introduced federal legislation that would ban the use of nets specifically along California’s coast.

A video released by conservation groups in April showing visuals of the dead animals caught in the nets helped get the attention of lawmakers and spur the Senate bill.

The Trump administration last week lost another court case that will require the federal government to uphold a ban on certain Mexican fish imports caught using gillnets in Mexico’s Gulf of California.

The court denied a request from the departments of Commerce, Homeland Security and Treasury, as well as the National Marine Fisheries Service, to lift the ban first put in place in July as a measure to protect the endangered vaquita porpoise, found in the Gulf of California.

The vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise species, which typically measures 5 feet long and weighs less than 100 pounds, can be killed through the use of gillnets.

The administration, in part, argued the embargo would hurt trade relations with Mexico.

Tags Dianne Feinstein Dolphins Fisheries gillnets porpoise Shelley Moore Capito Whales

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