Towing the Line
The U.S. is setting the standard for ecologically sustainable longline fishing. Now it's time to make sure the rest of the world gets onboard.
By Ted Williams Published: September-October 2013
In 1991 the United States banned large pelagic driftnets because of the enormous "bycatch" of seabirds, sea turtles, marine mammals, and non-target fish. So commercial fishermen began switching to longlining. Gear can consist of up to 55 miles of main line with 1,400 600-foot branch lines from which dangle thousands of baited hooks.
Bycatch remained horrendous. By 2003 longliners from 40 nations were killing at least 300,000 seabirds (including 22 endangered species) and countless billfish and sharks.
The United States is the world leader in innovations to reduce longlining bycatch of birds, but we haven't come nearly as far with protections for non-target fish and sea turtles. Many other nations don't use mitigation for any kind of bycatch. Largely as a result, about half of the world's petrels and most of the albatrosses are threatened with extinction.
The international bedrock of seabird protection is the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP). A major player in drafting ACAP was BirdLife International, a global conservation outfit that works with longliners to implement mitigation, with Audubon as its U.S. partner. ACAP signatories include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, France, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, South Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Uru- guay, but, oddly, not the United States. That's unfortunate because ACAP membership could bring in other players and create a forum for the U.S. to pressure foreign fleets to implement our reforms.
On his last day in office George W. Bush sent legislation to Congress facilitating membership in ACAP. And President Obama has kept it on the priority list for ratification in every session of Congress since. So far, no success.
"We don't want it to be regulatory for the U.S. industry," says Mike Daulton, Audubon's vice president of government relations, who has launched an intensive lobbying effort to get Congress to join ACAP. "We want it to be something that gets other countries up to our standards. You would think longliners would want to be pulling in lucrative fish, not drowned seabirds. What in the world would be the interest in not doing mitigation considering how inexpensive it is?"
A hundred dollars is all a captain has to pay for a very effective seabird mitigation device--a line with streamers attached that hangs from a high point on the vessel and is dragged in the water. The flapping streamers scare birds away from the bait, giving it a chance to sink out of reach.
"ACAP would help us protect some of the most endangered birds on the globe," adds Daulton. "And from a business standpoint, it would make our domestic fisheries more competitive by forcing foreign fleets to implement our best management practices. As of now there's no opposition."
So why is ACAP stuck? I put the question to Ed Melvin of Washington Sea Grant (administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Melvin, a fisheries biologist with a flair for engineering, is a world leader in developing seabird mitigation for longliners. And despite the fact that the United States is not an ACAP member, there's a U.S. delegation to ACAP on which he has served several times.
"The U.S. is historically reluctant to sign on to these kinds of agreements because payment for membership is weighted toward gross national income. But the U.S. is involved in ACAP up to its elbows. The Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. delegation got the north Pacific albatrosses [Laysan, black-footed, and short-tailed] listed under ACAP. And NMFS [the National Marine Fisheries Service] pays for my participation. Not being a member is awkward, though, because when the advisory committee meets, we're not at the table. If the United States signs on, Japan might follow and potentially Taiwan and Korea. They are the major pelagic longline nations."
Melvin served on a working group of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources--the international collaboration that made best-practices recommendations for seabird conservation in fisheries and put itself out of business with perhaps the most stunning bycatch success story to date. Bird bycatch was reduced to near zero with streamers; fishing at night, when the birds have trouble seeing baits; limiting fishing to the birds' non-breeding season; and using weights that kept baits (set for Patagonian toothfish, a.k.a. Chilean seabass) below bird diving range.
The group's work drew attention to the fact that a lot of seabird mortality was coming from outside the Antarctic convention area, and this awareness helped spawn ACAP.
I am unpopular with longliners because I used to write articles about them with titles like "The Pelagic Plague." So getting an invitation to ride along with one was difficult. But on the mild morning of June 26, 2013, I'm aboard Captain Greg Walinski's 35-foot Alicia Ann out of Chatham, Massachusetts. What can he be thinking of to let me watch as he and his deckhand, Darren Vlacich, slaughter some 850 sharks (spiny dogfish), slicing off their tails for the Asian shark-fin-soup market and saving the carcasses to sell locally as "rock salmon" (because what American wants to eat dog?) and to the Brits for fish-and-chips. Sharks and shark gore, reeking of urea, accumulate on the deck well above boot level. An environmental outrage guaranteed to incite Audubon readers, right?
Precisely the opposite. When longlining is done this way and in this kind of water, it's the most selective and environmentally friendly of all commercial fishing. Gillnets pile up bycatch (a minimum of 400,000 dead seabirds a year, according to a study in the June 2013 issue of Biological Conservation). Trawl nets, dragged through the mid-depths or along the ocean floor, sweep up entire fish communities. Otter trawls, which rake the bottom, do the same even as they clearcut forests of fish-sustaining coral, sea fans, and vegetation. Walinski and his fellow dogfish longliners don't kill bycatch and don't destroy habitat. Because of this selectivity they are exempt from the rule requiring trawlers and gillnetters to videotape their fishing or have an observer aboard.
Dogfish are vulnerable because they bear live young in dog-sized litters, but the current quota is sustainable. "They're about the only thing we have left," says Walinski. At the town fish pier I'd seen bumper stickers that read: "Na- tional [Marine] Fisheries Service: DESTROYING Fishermen and Their Communities Since 1976." The agency is guilty as charged--but not, as most Yankee fishermen imagine, because of strictness. Until 2006, when Congress outlawed killing marine fish faster than they can reproduce, the NMFS had trouble saying one of the kindest words a regulator or parent can utter: No.
Walinski isn't imbued with this kind of bitterness; he's full of good humor, a survivor, an adapter. For example, today for the first time he's slicing off the valuable tails, in the process draining the pungent, meat-degrading blood, then putting the carcasses on ice. This way he'll potentially get 50 cents per pound instead of 15. Dogfish tastes great, he says. He likes it deep-fried or baked with tomato sauce.
Walinski doesn't come from a fishing family; he got into the business 30 years ago because he loves the sea and everything that lives in it. He throttles down and grins as a dozen humpback whales roll, gape, and blow circles of bubbles to corral a shoal of sand eels. Later he slows again as great and sooty shearwaters dive and dash across the water, snatching sand eels pushed to the surface by charging striped bass. These shearwaters can swim underwater, occasionally chasing longline bait, but they're almost never able to open their beaks wide enough to get hooked. With other types of longlining, shearwaters, such as the Cory's, Balearic, and yelkouan, are not so lucky.
Deckhand Vlacich is made of the same stuff as Walinski. Later in the day he points out a fresh slick with Wilson's storm-petrels dancing over it. They seem to walk on the water, a talent Saint Peter (from whom they derive their name) is said to have possessed. Whoever came up with the name "petrel" hadn't seen the deep-diving petrels of the Southern Hemisphere that bring longline baits to the surface.
Most slicks off Cape Cod are natural, resulting from oil from baitfish chopped up by bass or bluefish, but here there is no sign of either. Vlacich theorizes that one of the local great white sharks has just eaten a seal and we're seeing its oil. Recently he saw a herring gull sitting on a seal's head; when he got closer he noticed that everything aft of the front flippers was missing.
Each time fish marks show on the sonar, Vlacich flips his fishing reel into free-spool and drops a hook baited with herring. It's not worth setting a longline unless you first catch a dogfish to make sure the sonar hasn't shown you some other species. In six hours he lands only a cod. The cold spring has kept the dogs out of inshore waters. "Let's call it a day," murmurs Walinski. But five minutes later the fisherman in him takes over, and he asks what my schedule is.
"Don't have one," I answer. So we steam toward Stellwagen Bank, 40 miles to the north. After 25 miles the sonar lights up with fish marks, and Vlacich reels in a dogfish with another snapping at its tail. He tosses out a buoy attached to 300 feet of hookless line that pays out as the Alicia Ann eases toward Highland Light, near the tip of Cape Cod. At the end he clips on a 15-pound trawl anchor that will take the line to the bottom; to this he ties an 1,800-foot longline draped with 300 hooks pre-baited with squid. It slithers out of a plastic box, newspaper layers and a stream of water from a hose thawing it and keeping it from tangling. Vlacich ties the tail end of the longline to another trawl anchor and clips the anchor to another buoy line. He makes two more sets.
When he finishes the third it's time to pull the first. As a hydraulic winch pulls the longline through steel rollers (two vertical, one horizontal) the hooks rip out of the fish, and Walinski tosses them to the deck at the approximate rate of one every five seconds.
When the third set is in we have our daily quota of 4,000 pounds--without killing or even catching another species.
There's no bycatch problem with this kind of longlining because the anchors sink the hooks to the ocean floor before the few diving birds in the area can grab the bait, because non-target fish can be released alive, and because there are relatively few sea turtles off New England.
But other longliners can face daunting challenges. The last thing they want is to waste hooks and fishing time on non-targets, so they're apt to be receptive to mitigation methods. "We try to extract ideas from fishermen and sometimes move those ideas in different directions, working with them on their boats," Melvin says. "We get them involved in a problem-solving process. I really wanted to zero in on streamers, fine-tuning the design to make it more effective. Off South Africa there were several albatross species we were concerned about. They couldn't reach the bait, but white-chinned petrels would bring it up and get mobbed by the albatrosses, which would then get hooked and drown."
So working with Japanese boats in a major study from 2008 to 2010, Melvin's team and the fishermen figured out a way to extend the streamers, and they lowered the hooks beyond the streamers by placing weights on the branch lines that hung off the main longline. This, combined with night fishing, virtually eliminated bycatch. Melvin says these innovations seem to be catching on well with Asian fleets and are now accepted as best practices.
Off Alaska, longliners targeting Pacific cod, sablefish, and halibut were killing huge numbers of seabirds, including critically endangered short-tailed albatrosses. With no large deep-diving petrels in the Northern Hemisphere, Melvin's team was able to reduce bird bycatch by 80 percent with its standard streamer design. On the U.S. West Coast the team is teaching streamer use to U.S. sablefish longliners operating about 20 miles out, where the continental shelf falls away and black-footed and Laysan albatrosses feed.
Most of the remaining problems are with foreign and illegal vessels operating in the Southern Hemisphere, home to most albatrosses. With minor exceptions, these birds breed at mid or high latitudes, but they can feed thousands of miles from their nests. For instance, BirdLife International has tracked wandering albatrosses on foraging trips that last 22 days and span 2,237 miles from the Antarctic to the tropics. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's beloved poem, it was probably a wandering albatross, patrolling the southern fringe of its range, that the ancient mariner dispatched with his crossbow.
Black-footed and Laysan albatrosses fly from Hawaii to Southern California to gorge on spawning squid that pack in around the Channel Islands. Now much of this critical feeding area is off-limits to squid fishermen because it's part of a 318-square-mile network of "marine protected areas," established under California's Marine Life Protection Act of 1999. "Ten percent of U.S. land is protected, and less than one percent of the ocean," declares Mike Sutton, director of Audubon California. "We figured it was time to change that."
The world's largest marine protected area--the 140,000-square-mile Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Monument, established by President George W. Bush in 2006--has significantly reduced bycatch of birds, turtles, and fish by excluding all commercial fishermen (foreign vessels included), of which the majority were longliners. And the 10 islands protected by the monument are vital breeding habitat for albatrosses.
Sea-level rise from global warming compounds the threats from longlining. For example, in the winter of 2011 storms flooded the same Hawaiian islands protected by President Bush, destroying 30,200 black-footed albatross nests and 254,000 Laysan albatross nests.
Even if humans are able to reverse global warming, it will take time that imperiled seabirds don't have. But as the United States has demonstrated, stopping longline bycatch is something that can be done in months. Congress now needs to take us the final distance and, as Mike Daulton observes, bring other countries up to our standards by joining ACAP.
Send an Audubon Action Alert to your legislators, demanding that they vote for U.S. ACAP membership. For information on longline bycatch and to help limit it, support the following groups: Sea Turtle Conservancy; Wild Oceans;
Like anchors, circle hooks work well for one bycatch class but harm another. "They're wonderful for turtles," says Russell Nelson, The Billfish Foundation's chief scientist. "But [because they work better on fish than J hooks] they can increase longline bycatch of blue marlin by 30 percent or 40 percent. High-seas longlining bycatch is a major problem, accounting for 90 percent to 95 percent of the fishing mortality of marlin."
Large sharks are being annihilated by longliners. For example, as bad as Canada's Northwest Atlantic swordfish longlining industry is for turtles, it's worse for sharks. It kills two for every swordfish caught.
It's hard to think of a shark in worse shape than the dusky. They take almost twice as long as humans to reach sexual maturity and then bear only 3 to 14 pups every third year. The NMFS banned dusky retention in 2000. But partially because people, longliners included, have trouble distinguishing them from other species, they aren't recovering. So late in 2012 the NMFS proposed an eight-foot limit and closing dusky bycatch hotspots to shark longlining. The agency got eaten alive--not just by longliners but by recreational anglers--so it backed off.
Because of their high value, bluefin tuna are even more critically depressed than sharks and billfish. In 2012 Atlantic longliners targeting fish other than bluefins killed and were required to discard 239.5 metric tons of bluefin bycatch because the NMFS wants to discourage a de facto bluefin fishery. The worst bycatch occurs in the Gulf of Mexico, the western Atlantic stock's only known spawning area. Adding to the problem is that the NMFS allows Gulf longliners targeting abundant yellowfin tuna to sell some of their bluefin bycatch. So the valuable bluefins are caught "accidentally on purpose." It's a grotesque ruse that threatens to usher western bluefins into commercial extinction.
For billfish: In 2012 the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (which also manages billfish) implemented the first retention cap for white and blue marlin.
For sharks: Longliners not targeting sharks are getting away from wire leaders in favor of monofilament that hooked sharks can bite through and thereby escape. In fact, Australia, Ecuador, Micronesia, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, Tonga, and the Marshall Islands have banned wire. And last March the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, goosed by the United States, protected the oceanic whitetip shark, the porbeagle, and three species of hammerheads--great, scalloped, and smooth--by banning export unless the nation's scientific authority determines that international trade won't pose a threat.
For bluefin tuna: "Greensticking" is mitigation that works as well for bluefins as streamers work for birds. A fiberglass, graphite, or wooden stick (originally green but now any color) elevates and tows a weight about 400 yards behind the boat. The weight has the dual function of serving as an attractor for the targeted yellowfins and keeping the mainline taut so the attached squid lures can fly in and out of the water. The yellowfins hit them, get hooked, and are then winched to the boat. Like buoy gear, greensticking is catching on because of its efficiency, but its use needs to be mandated.
In the Gulf a possible fix is at hand with the NMFS's proposed Amendment 7 to its Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Plan. The rule may be out by the time you read this, and a 60-day public comment period will follow publication. The NMFS needs to implement a strict bycatch cap, ban surface longlining in the Gulf when spawning bluefins are present, and require 100 percent NMFS observer coverage.
What works as mitigation for one class of bycatch may harm another. Anchors reduce bird bycatch by taking bait quickly to the bottom. But when they hold it there they increase lethal bycatch of sea turtles, especially loggerheads that eat longline bait and are then held underwater until they drown. Other sea turtles, especially leatherbacks, tangle or get snagged in unanchored pelagic longlines, but if the lines aren't too deep, at least they can make it to the surface to breathe.
The U.S. fleet kills a lot of turtles, but nothing compared with foreign fleets. Some of the worst offenders are Spain, Japan, China, Ecuador, Peru, and Canada. Canada's Atlantic swordfish longliners annually catch, injure, or kill something like 1,200 loggerheads and at least a hundred leatherbacks. There are no bycatch caps, and no restrictions on area, bait, depth, or time bait stays in the water. And only about 5 percent of the boats have government observers.
In the Pacific, loggerhead and leatherback populations are much smaller and in even steeper decline. So the NMFS prohibits West Coast-based swordfish longliners from the North Pacific high seas. And it requires shallow-water pelagic longliners based in Hawaii to carry a NMFS observer so the agency can shut down fishing when an annual cap of 34 loggerheads or 26 leatherbacks is reached.
"Circle hooks" (rounder and with smaller gaps than traditional "J hooks" and no more expensive) are required where the U.S. fleet operates in major turtle habitat. They help because turtles get hooked in the mouth rather than the throat. U.S. longliners have to carry dip nets and line cutters so they can cut the line near the hook, generally enabling turtles to survive. And in much of the North Atlantic they have to use fish instead of squid for bait because turtles tend to nibble the former off the hook and gulp the latter whole.
Most loggerheads die on lines held to the bottom by anchors. The most effective mitigation method for turtle bycatch is "buoy gear," developed for swordfish in the Gulf of Mexico. It also works better--about 300 swordfish caught per 1,000 hooks compared with 8 per 1,000 for longlines. It's catching on because of its efficiency, but it needs to be mandated. About 15 buoys, often illuminated and hanging on baited hooks near the bottom, are deployed from a tethered line at night. When a fish takes the bait the buoy moves, and the fisherman hauls in his catch. Turtle bycatch is virtually nonexistent; non-target fish are released alive; and the quality of the catch is improved because it doesn't die the way it does on longlines.
This story originally ran in the September-October 2013 issue as "Towing the Line."