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Fishermen Scare Off the Really Big Ones

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Chris Williams has been fishing for thresher shark and swordfish long enough to know that one whale can ruin a day’s work.

A commercial fisherman from Oxnard, Williams, 35, is one of about 80 active drift gill net fishermen in Southern California who run the risk of getting in the way of whales and other marine mammals every time they unfurl one of their 6,000-foot nets.

Not only can the giant marine mammals rip through one of the nylon nets, thus setting the catch free, they can become entangled and drown.

No matter how it unfolds, the encounter can mean a great loss.

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“My net cost $26,000, and at any time I can have some type of catastrophe,” Williams said.

But now encouraged by the federal government, Williams and other fishermen are experimenting with a $40 device that emits a high-pitched sound to steer whales, dolphins and other sea creatures--many of them federally protected--from harm’s way.

It’s called an acoustical “pinger,” and since August 1996 the National Marine Fisheries Service has been studying how effective the devices are at shooing whales away from nets used to harvest swordfish and shark in Southern California and Oregon. Preliminary results indicate that the pingers work, driving away three out of four whales.

“Everyone was blown away by the results,” said Chuck Janisse, co-director of the Ventura-based Federation of Independent Seafood Harvesters. “Statistically, the reduction is amazing.”

The bright orange pingers look like oversize hot dogs. They stand 6 1/2 inches tall and emit an annoying beep that travels at least 300 feet in water.

In a previous test on the East Coast, pingers also proved effective in keeping porpoises from becoming entangled in drift nets. The 1994 experiment was so successful that the National Marine Fisheries Service lifted a ban on drift gill net fishing, provided the fishermen equipped their nets with pingers.

As a result of that East Coast study, the National Marine Fisheries Service convened the Pacific Cetacean Take Reduction Team--made up of fishermen, environmentalists and government officials. The team’s mission: Conduct a similar study in the pelagic drift gill net fishery on the West Coast, where the gear of choice is the 6,000-foot-long drift gill net.

California’s swordfish and thresher shark fishermen usually work far offshore, up to 200 miles out to sea for a week at a time. Their nets are generally one nautical mile in length and have a mesh size from 18 to 22 inches.

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The nets are towed behind the boats and suspended 24 to 75 feet underwater, unlike the practice of foreign fishing fleets, which use 9,000-foot-long gill nets that drift on the surface where marine mammals and sea birds are abundant.

All gill nets are prohibited within three miles of the California mainland. There are other restrictions too.

Drift gill nets for harvesting thresher shark and swordfish are prohibited within 25 miles of the mainland from December through January to protect migrating gray whales.

They are also banned from waters within 75 miles of the mainland from Feb. 1 to July 14, in an effort to keep thresher shark populations from being decimated.

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Harvesting with these nets must also take place at least a mile away from the Channel Islands. Nets can be brought in closer to one of the islands if the water is at least 420 feet deep.

About 20 of the nearly 80 active swordfish and thresher shark fishermen from Morro Bay to San Diego participated in the first year of the West Coast pinger study, which began in August 1996.

Each net was equipped with 21 pingers across the top, or cork line, and 20 across the bottom, or lead line, Janisse said.

Government researchers are continuing the study. But the first year’s results showed that pingers reduced the number of whales and other marine mammals caught in the nets by 75%.

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“This development indicates that we are going to meet the mandates of the Marine Mammal Protection Act,” Janisse said.

Victoria Cornish, a fishery biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the pingers produce a wall of sound that seems to be a powerful deterrent.

Researchers observed fishermen setting their nets 420 times during the year, and counted deaths of marine mammals on 25 of those occasions.

“Four of those sets had pingers, 21 did not,” Cornish said. “The rate of the take has gone down.”

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Based on these initial findings, pingers will be mandatory on all shark and swordfish gill net boats in the 1997-98 fishing season, which begins in October and runs through early next year. The season happens to coincide with the blue whale migration along the West Coast.

Williams, the fisherman from Oxnard, said he has set his nets more than 1,000 times in the decade he has fished for sharks and swordfish. He said the $1,600 it cost to outfit his boat with pingers is a small price to pay when his livelihood is at stake.

“If it helps, I’m all for it,” he said. “Nobody wants to catch a whale. It totally rips your net apart. And it’s dangerous. Those are big animals.”

Swordfish have been an important catch off the Southern California Coast since the turn of the century. In the early 1900s, harpoon fishermen set sail every summer and fall, with their catch peaking in 1978 at 2.6 million pounds.

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By that time, some fishermen were already experimenting with more efficient ways to bring the fish to market, including the use of drift nets at night to land thresher shark.

They found their nets came up with a lucrative bycatch: swordfish. In 1979, lawmakers approved the incidental catch of swordfish.

And in 1982, the Legislature decided to limit the permits for catching swordfish with drift gill nets to a total of 200 boats.

Most swordfish harpooners switched to the drift gill nets, a move that ensured a consistent catch, said Diane Pleshner, manager of the Santa Barbara-based California Seafood Council.

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“No other fishing tool provides a consistency of supply,” Pleshner said. “The nets are more efficient insofar as they can be size-selective.”

The nylon nets catch the larger or mature swordfish or shark while allowing the smaller fish to pass through, she said.

Pleshner applauded the use of pingers as a way to assure consumers that the threat to protected marine mammals has been reduced.

“The interaction level even without the pingers was relatively low,” Pleshner said.

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The pingers are manufactured by the Seacom Division of the St. Charles, Ill.-based Dukane Corp., which also makes underwater acoustic locating beacons used in flight data recorders--the so-called “black boxes"--in commercial and military aircraft.

The device was developed from the research of Jon Lien, a marine mammal behaviorist at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Lien used an eardrum from the carcass of a juvenile whale to determine the sound that would catch a whale’s attention. That led to underwater alarms in 1994 that kept humpback whales from becoming entangled in cod traps in the North Atlantic.

Although pinger technology has changed little in the past three years, the size has changed dramatically.

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“The first pinger was the size of a Yugo,” said John Springer, a Dukane spokesman. The company’s latest model can fit in the palm of a hand.

Outfitting a boat with a full complement of 41 pingers costs about $1,600.

But Janisse said the costs can be recouped quickly, given that an average swordfish weighs about 150 pounds and goes for $3.50 per pound wholesale.

Some fishermen say they are willing to go to almost any length to stay in business. Outfitting a net is a small price to pay, they say.

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“The potential for good far outweighs anything else,” said Harold “Lynn” Stephey, 61, of Cambria in San Luis Obispo County. “It really doesn’t matter what the cost is.”

Stephey has been fishing for 30 years. Depending on the season, he’s either bringing in albacore or swordfish and thresher shark.

Buying pingers, he said, is just one of many prices he pays for being a one-man business. “It’s a fact of life,” he said.

And for anyone who thinks fishermen set out to harm protected marine species, Stephey says: “No one wants to see those animals hurt or caught. We don’t want to be shut down.”

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