California Votes To Make Itself More Reliant On Imported Fish

Jason Hopkins | Immigration and politics reporter
  • California legislators voted to phase out drift gill nets, very large nets used for commercial fishing.
  • Fishermen argue the ban will put them out of business and will result in more seafood imports from countries that have less protections for wildlife.
  • The campaign to ban the nets was aided by a photographer who was behind a debunked “starving polar bear” photo. 

California lawmakers passed legislation that would ban drift nets and help save endangered sea animals, but critics argue such a ban would ultimately have the opposite effect.

By overwhelming majorities, both the California State Assembly and state Senate voted Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, in favor of phasing out drift gill nets — mile-long nets used by commercial fishermen. Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown has until Sept. 30 to approve the bill. Brown has not publicly stated where he stands on the ban, but the legislature has more than enough votes to override his veto should he decide against it.

The controversial nets have long been derided by activists as dangerous to marine wildlife. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization estimates that drift gill nets have caught and killed 136 sea turtles, 456 whales and 4,000 dolphins in the past three decades.

Environmentalists celebrated Thursday’s vote, however, California fishermen were left wondering what would become of their livelihoods.

“I don’t know what I’d do,” Mike Flynn — who has depended on drift gill nets to capture swordfish for 40 years — said in a statement to NBC Bay Area. “There’s very few of us left, and we don’t seem to have a chance … we’re being villainized, unjustly.”

The number of fishermen who actively use the controversial nets off the California coast has dropped considerably. As many as 141 permits were active in 1990. Today, that number has fallen to around 20.

In an ironic criticism, Flynn and other fishermen say the ban will be worse for marine wildlife, forcing consumers to rely on seafood imports from countries that have fewer rules that protect endangered animals.

“It’ll be supplied by foreign fleets that have little to no regulations,” Flynn explained. “If we ended up being put out of business, there will still be the demand, but the supply will be just coming from foreign countries that are not going to be abiding by the regulations that we abide by currently.”

Large segments of the California coast already prohibit the use of drift nets for six months out of the year to protect migrating sea turtles — which haven’t been accidentally caught in six years. Additionally, fishermen are required to use devices that emit high frequency sounds to scare off dolphins and whales.

The campaign to ban large drift nets in California began several years ago. Environmental groups — Mercy for Animals, Sea Legacy, Turtle Island Restoration Network and others — sent a team of photographers underwater with the goal of capturing heart-wrenching pictures of trapped fish. The photos were used by activists to demand a ban.

“For every fisherman out there, there’s another 100 people out there that depend on a healthy ocean to make a living,” said Paul Nicklen, one of the photographs involved in the project. He hopes fishermen are soon prohibited from using the nets. “Enough is enough. Let’s let the world weigh in on it, and let’s end this.”

Nicklen, a photographer for National Geographic, gained national fame for a viral picture of a starving polar bear, which his team explicitly blamed on global warming. However, National Geographic was forced to issue a mea culpa months after its publication, admitting that they “went too far” in linking climate change to the starving polar bear. National Geographic stated that there was “no way to know for certain why this bear was on the verge of death.” (RELATED: It Took National Geographic 7 Months To Admit It ‘Went Too Far’ Linking An Iconic Image Of A Dying Polar Bear To Global Warming)

Should Brown sign the bill into law, gill nets will be eradicated by January 2023. Fishermen will be given the option to receive up to $110,000 if they agree to give up their nets by January 2020 — an amount some fishermen claim is not enough to transition into a new line of work.

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