Commercial gill-netting and abandoned gear threatens fisheries by being an indiscriminate killer
One of my first pieces for Good Men Project covered the top priorities for sport-fishing conservation, and criticized the harvest method known as gill-netting. Due to the fact these nets do not target particular species and instead trap everything in their path, endangered and protected species often end up in these nets. Just recently, a world record alligator gar was captured in a net intended for buffalo in Lake Chotard on Valentine’s Day in Vicksburg, Mississippi. This animal was “beyond recovery” according to Field and Stream, which also has an editor’s note that claims:
“…we generally refrain from publishing them because too often these amazing, prehistoric fish are caught and killed for nothing but a trophy photo.”
The fish was estimated to be between 50 and 70 years old.
From my home state of Alabama to my current residence in Oregon, gill-netting is a practice that threatens wildlife nationwide, from freshwater to salt. The Bass Anglers Sportsman Society has taken a stance against the recent introduction of Alabama House Bill 258 to allow gill-netting, claiming that it threatens Lake Guntersville’s estimated 853 million dollar recreational bass fishery. Gill-netting has been banned for years in Alabama, but only recently in 2012 was it enforced by the Department of Natural Resources. In the past, it had been used to harvest catfish and buffalo, like the nets in Mississippi that killed the largest alligator gar on record.
In the same week, Oregon’s stand-in Governor Kate Brown appointed gill-netting lobbyist Bruce Buckmaster to the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission. The appointment was met with opposition from both the Coastal Conservation Association and the Association of Northwest Steelheaders. In an April 24th column by Bill Monroe of the Oregonian, CCA Vice President Bruce Polley said,
“The appointment…feels like a slap in the face to the 600,000 angling license buyers.”
Oregon and Washington resolved to ban non-tribal gill-netting in the mainstem of the Columbia River in 2013 with support of the previous Governor Kitzhaber, who recently stepped down from his position. A lawsuit later that year challenging the decision was dismissed and confirmed this February by the court of appeals. The process to remove gill-nets from the mainstem of the Columbia to preserve ESA-listed stocks of wild steelhead and salmon has been a lengthy battle led by the Coastal Conservation Association, which has also led the fight in the Gulf of Mexico to remove gill-nets from fisheries that trap Red Drum or “Redfish” that the organization pushed to have listed as a game species since the late seventies.
The CCA, which opposes the use of non-selective commercial fishing gear, has also fought battles to ban the use of non-biodegradable netting. Abandoned, or “ghost nets” account for suffocating a great deal of aquatic life as well, particularly in the ocean where they are extremely difficult to remove. Nets made of synthetic materials rest on the ocean floor for many years after traditional nets made of organic materials like cotton would have decomposed.
Kurt Leiber, founder of Ocean Defenders Alliance, saw a need for retrieving these “ghost nets” and lost gear that commercial fishermen left behind. Kurt says that some of these nets made of synthetic fibers can last up to 500 years, and that nets made of hemp are a viable solution.
Film-maker and diver Walter Marti documented the removal of multiple species caught in abandoned nets and traps on the ocean floor for takepart.com. The footage shows animals suffering a slow, imminent death while trapped and immobilized. None of these fish will be harvested as a food source.