Editor’s Note: The following letter was sent to Paul Diodati, director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. The letter was also signed by Chuck Hodgkinson, Emmett Carroll, Jennifer Clark, Jonathan Mayhew, Virginia Jones and Tom Osmers.
Regarding the request for consideration of a tending requirement on bottom tending or sink gill nets in Massachusetts state waters: All nets must come in with the boat and not be left at sea when the boat is at port.
By its very design, a gill net is made to capture fish by their gills or entanglement, thus killing the fish in a short period of time or immobilizing the fish, making it vulnerable to predation. It’s not a trap designed to hold fish unharmed, it is a killing device.
When a gill net is tended daily, most fish are of marketable quality and predation is greatly reduced. When the nets are left untended for days, and sometimes weeks, due to weather, mechanical, or even market conditions, the fish caught will die, rot, or be eaten by predators such as dogfish, crabs, sand fleas, and slime eels. And so an endless stream of thousands of fish and other species are killed and wasted. Most of these decaying carcasses fall out of the net before the net comes in the boat resulting in undocumented mortality, even when an observer is on board, which renders good science impossible. Only the fish most recently caught are marketable at a reasonable price. Others are in terrible condition and are sold as “scalers” for a fraction of what fresh fish could be sold for and thereby not complying with best possible use requirements. As for all the other fish that have rotted in the net or have been partially consumed by predators, their remaining bits and pieces fall off of the net and collect on the bottom. The longer the net is left untended, the more the bottom is covered with rotting debris. This is what fishermen call “souring the bottom.” Fish will avoid this bottom, and the gill netter will move his nets to start this cycle all over again.
When gill nets are left untended for any reason, the chances of mammals (whales, porpoises, seals), reptiles (turtles), and large pelagics (sharks of all kinds) getting caught in the nets or tangled in the buoy lines, increase by the number of days the net is left untended. In entanglement cases where the Center for Coastal Studies was able to identify gear type, 14 per cent of right whale entanglements were sink gill net gear and in humpback entanglements, the figure was 50 per cent. Twenty-three percent of all gill net entanglements were lethal. These encounters happen more often then they should and, because gill netters do not report them (which leads to bad P.R. for commercial fishing), far more often than most people know. No actively fishing gill netter is going to go on the record confirming the problems described here, for obvious reasons. But ask an ex-gill netter captain or deckhand, and these problems and others will be confirmed. Draggermen and scallopers can also confirm these claims as they often catch ghost gill nets.
Untended nets are far more likely to be broken loose by severe storms or hit by mobile gear boats, breaking the net loose from its anchors and setting it adrift with the tide. This “ghost” net is still “fishing” and will continue to fish until it is removed from the water or washes up on the beach, becoming yet another piece of fishing-related pollution and therefore leading to more bad P.R. for commercial fishing. Lobsters and crabs are very susceptible to a ghost net; the scent of dead fish draws them in and they become fatally tangled in the monofilament mesh. As a diver, I have seen this first hand. A tending requirement should very nearly eliminate these problems.
On about half of the total days in a year, conditions are too rough for gill netters’ vessels to go out fishing. Add to that the number of days when other factors such as health, mechanical problems, family commitments, etc., prevent fishing, and a tending requirement would result in at least 60 per cent less time in the water for these nets, which could otherwise be in the water 100 per cent of the time (and frequently are). No net or buoy lines in the water equals no entanglements. Furthermore, any entanglements would occur on fishing days, when fishermen are nearby and weather conditions would allow for more immediate reporting and reaction from response teams. The caught animal would have less time to roll and twist in the rope and survival rates would likely increase.
The state must enact a tending requirement for sink gill net gear as soon as possible, thus eliminating tremendous waste and discard resulting in undocumented mortality of fish and the unreported killing of mammals, sharks, reptiles and pelagic species.
A yearly tag similar to lobster tags could be issued for each net with the year and fishing I.D. number of the owner. This would keep a fisherman from exceeding the limit on number of nets and would make it easy for enforcement officers to check at the dock for compliance. The nets can be piled in the boat with the tag ends laid in a stack so the officer can easily count them.
Warren Doty is a Chilmark selectman who is actively involved in fishery management, protection and restoration.