Destructive Fishing Methods: Lay Gillnets
A PFC White Paper
The Pacific Fisheries Coalition (PFC), with support from the PEW Charitable Trusts, the Harold K. L. Castle Foundation, and the Marisla Foundation represents a unique collaboration between conservationists and fishermen who find common ground in their desire to promote the conservation and responsible use of living marine resources in Hawai`i and the Central and Western Pacific.
This white paper was drafted by Bob Endreson, President of the Hawaii Fishermen's Foundation, William Aila, Hawaiian fisherman and Harbor Master of the Waianae Small Boat Harbor and Linda Paul, Executive Director for Aquatics, Hawai`i Audubon Society, with the assistance of the State Division of Aquatic Resources.
Destructive Fishing Methods
There are many indiscriminate fishing methods that are extremely destructive. One of the worst are set or lay gillnets. The use of set monofilament gillnets has decimated the populations of inshore fishes in the main Hawaiian Islands. While some configurations of gillnets are used responsibly in ways that surround and catch only the targeted species, lay gillnets are deployed as invisible walls that snare everything that runs into them, depleting both targeted and non-targeted species, destroying bottom habitat and protected species, and severely impacting the snorkeling and diving industries. The bycatch may amount to fifteen times the volume of the targeted catch.
Lay gillnets are often left unattended in the water for long periods of time in violation of State law, which currently requires they be checked after two hours, hauled after four, and cannot be re-used within 24 hours after that. However, a struggling turtle will suffocate in less than two hours. Over the years the length of lay gillnets and depths where they are set has increased, and so has the damage, not only to the fish stocks, but also to inshore reef and deep water habitat. There is no accounting of how much net is currently being used in Hawai`i. Inshore lay gillnets are banned in all States in the United States except Hawai`i.
Lay Gillnets Destroy Resources
Set, lay or moi moi gillnet fishing utilize curtains of netting constructed out of organic or synthetic cordage that are suspended vertically anywhere in the water column with the aide of floaters and weights attached or anchored to the bottom. Fish that swim into this curtain are snagged by their gills or entangled in the mesh. Although lay gillnets have been used in near shore waters in Hawaii for a long time, during the 1990s fishermen began deploying very long monofilament lay gillnets in deep water. These nets are up to 2+ miles long, made up of 500 foot panels attached together, 12 or more feet in height, mesh size 2-3/4 to 8 inches, set 2+ miles from and parallel to shore in waters 200-300 feet deep just before sunset. A hydraulic wheel is used to retrieve them.
If lay gillnets snag on the bottom when retrieved they rip off large chunks of coral, which destroys fish habitat, and large pieces of net tear off creating marine debris that continues to kill marine life. These long nets take about 45 minutes to lay and more than 2 hours to retrieve. They catch approximately 100-200 lbs of fish such as papio (dark young ulua or jack), weke ula (red goat fish), opakapaka (pink snapper), uku (grey snapper), mu (porgy fish), and uhu (parrot fish) per haul, as well as undersized fish, out-of-season moi (threadfin), lobster, Kona crab, baby sharks, and protected species such as the green sea turtle.
Enforcement of the current lay gillnet regulations is very difficult. The State has a total of 39 enforcement officers that are responsible for enforcing fish and game regulations on both land and sea on O`ahu. To catch a gillnetter violating the 2 hour check, 4 hour haul requirement takes over half of one officer's day. As a result lay gillnets are still being left in the water over long periods of time and mesh sizes are used that are smaller than the minimum legal size. Net violations are classified as petty misdemeanors that can bring fines of up to $1,000 and/or up to 30 days in jail. Coral and closed-season fishing violations are petty misdemeanors carrying a maximum $500 fine and 30 days in jail and another $300 for individual pieces of coral. Violators' nets are confiscated and boats can be forfeited. The local cost of nets runs about $75 per 100 feet, but sections of cheaper nets made in Asia are often intentionally discarded. The use of illegal nets leads the list of fishing violations.
Irresponsible gillnet fishing destroys the resource for everybody so that a few greedy individuals can profit. The mesh-sizes are often so small that most of the fish caught have not yet reached reproductive size. The hanging ratio is also frequently adjusted to reduce the effective mesh-size in places where size limits are in force. Monofilament gillnets are particularly destructive when configured as traditional weirs or fish-fences. In places where fish move along well-defined and restricted routes such as reef-passages and estuaries, a few strategically-placed nets set parallel to shore interrupt the flow of fish from deep water to shallows and at the appropriate time of year can decimate certain stocks such as weke ulu.
Many of Hawai`i's fishing communities regret the use of lay gillnets, but use them anyway because they catch more fish per unit of expended effort than most other forms of gear, except perhaps chemicals and explosives. Chorine and cyanide kill or stun not only the target fish species, but all other fish in the area and destroy reefs and productive fish habitat for many years. From the individual's point of view, particularly the commercial individual, to give up lay gillnets voluntarily when others do not is to give up a competitive edge and, given the marginal nature of most artisanal commercial fisheries, this might mean losing a means of livelihood. Thus there have to be some powerful incentives before fishermen and government leaders call a halt to this destructive practice.
The Hawai`i Gillnet Task Force
In September 1998 the Hawai`i Gillnet Task Force was formed to examine the rules governing the use of lay gillnets in State waters and to make recommendations. The Task Force included individuals representing a cross section of ocean user groups including recreational and commercial fishermen, fishery biologists, enforcement personnel, and one conservationist. At their last meeting in January 1999 the Task Force recommended by consensus the continued use of set gillnets, but with rules that required gillnet registration, marking set nets with buoys and tags attached at 75 foot intervals or less, dimensions of no more than 12 feet in height and 500 feet in length for non commercial users and 1200 feet in length for commercial users, and having a diver present during all gillnet operations.
Following the conclusion of the work of the Task Force the West Hawai`i Regional Fisheries Management Area Council built upon the work done by the Task Force and after 18 community meetings developed a set of more restrictive rules tailored to fit the needs of the Big Island, which they sent to the Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) in 2001. The West Hawai`i proposed rules limit the stretched height to 7 feet instead of 12, prohibit the setting of a lay nets within 1200 feet of another lay net instead of 100; limit the maximum length for both commercial and non-commercial users to 125 feet instead of 1200 and 500 respectively; and allow nets from two or more individuals to be combined but the total length cannot exceed 250 feet. The West Hawai`i proposed rules also provide that an individual may possess only a single lay net while on or near the water and a vessel of float may carry only a total maximum of 250 feet of lay net provided that there are at least two persons associated with that vessel or float. They also specify several areas where lay netting is prohibited.
In 2002 DAR published a proposed set of rules that incorporated some of the existing rules, most of the Task Force recommendations and a few of the West Hawai`i Council recommendations.
Lay nets may not:
Lay nets must:
Lay net maximum lengths:
Unfortunately there are still no proposed rules limiting net cordage to less than 1/8" in diameter to avoid turtle and monk seal retention, prohibiting lay gillnet use in areas used for spawning by certain species and during closed seasons (moi and mullet) or limiting the length and number of lay nets that could be used per location as well as per person. For example, the proposed rules would allow commercial users to set an unlimited number of 1200 foot panels spaced 100 feet apart, in staggered rows 12 feet apart, thus permitting them to blanket an entire bay with lay nets. When four hours has run for the first net set, the fisherman must retrieve it, but depending on the number of lay nets set, it may be the end of the day before the last gillnet is retrieved. Few fish will survive to be enjoyed by the many other users of our nearshore resources. Pole fishermen will continue to catch little if anything; snorkelers will continue to see barren reefs. In Kailua Bay on the island of O`ahu the only reef fish still there are puffer fish that can bite through a monofilament gillnet.
Case Study: Community Management of Gillnets in Fiji
The Macuata coastal communities' decisions about coastal fishery access policy for the coming year are taken at meetings of fishing rights owners. In 1990, after worries were expressed at local community meetings about the state of coastal fisheries and some negative interactions between commercial and subsistence fisheries, the chiefs of several major fishing rights areas decided not to issue any commercial gillnet permits. The decision was supported by the Fiji Fisheries Division at community meetings and through the licencing procedure even though little scientific data had been collected on the impact of gillnetting on inshore resources. Subsequent enforcement was mainly at the local level through the long-established network of honorary fish wardens nominated and maintained by the community.
There was no baseline survey conducted on health of the inshore fisheries before the gillnet ban was imposed and no subsequent scientific assessment was done. The Fisheries Division did not have sufficient resources. However, three years after the initial ban, the fisheries staff reported seeing species of fish in subsistence catches from the Labasa River estuary that had not been noted for decades.
Eventually, in 1996 the Fiji Fisheries Division was able to study the impact of the gillnet ban with the assistance of the South Pacific Commission, a Pacific Islands regional technical advisory organization. Because of the lack of baseline information, the joint survey team did a benchmark fishery assessment through trial fishing and an analysis of changes in commercial fishing methods and the marketing of fish. They also interviewed villagers and fishing groups and found that the local fishing economy appeared to have improved substantially since the bans were imposed .
Instead of relying on near-coastal gillnetting, commercial boats were now fishing by hook and line over a much larger area, resulting in a thriving, high quality fishery, with better private-sector organization of distribution and marketing.
All of these sustainable developments -- the organization of fishermen into mutually supportive groups to achieve economies of scale, the proliferation of privately-operated ice machines, the improvement in the distribution and marketing of high-quality fish -- were precisely what the government fisheries service had been promoting for more than two decades or more, without a great deal of success. The main principle suggested by this is that action, if it comes from within the community, is far more likely to produce positive results than any external attempts to impose such values.
The Macuata case-study demonstrates that hardship need not necessarily follow a complete ban on set gillnets and there may be a near immediate benefit that results from the mobilization and reorganization of community resources to meet a self-imposed challenge.
It suggests that the role of government in Hawaii coastal fishery management could be more effective if it focused on providing the information needed for informed community decision-making rather than trying to make all the decisions at the government level. The West Hawaii Council, a community fisheries management body, delineated specific near-shore zones as closed to lay gillnet fishing in order to increase populations of reef fishes. More areas throughout the entire state need to be closed to lay gillnet fishing. Better yet lay gillnet fishing should be prohibited throughout the state. Our economic future as a tourist destination is depends on it.
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turtle photo by Dr. James P. McVey, NOAA Sea Grant Program