After decades of use, gill nets and the fishing strategies that employ them have been banned by California law, providing a boon of sanctuary for seabirds, sharks, and the secretive harbor porpoise.
The years between 1987 and 2002 saw many gill net bans come into place in counties across the California coast, where before dead marine animals would wash up on beaches entangled in nets, causing outrage among locals.
Used literally for thousands of years, the gill net is an effective way of catching fish. The fibers snag on the fishes’ gills, but can also snare other animals like sharks, otters, seabirds, and harbor porpoises.
The latter—one of the smallest toothed whales on Earth, is a very secretive animal, and as such represents a challenge for marine biologists tracking their populations. Karin Forney, a marine biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has been studying them for three decades.
“Harbor porpoises show that if you stop killing them… they can return. That they’re capable of recovering,” Forney told the LA Times. “They have a resilience and they will rebound if we just let them.”
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Rebounding could almost be considered an understatement. In the catch areas of Monterrey Bay, Morro Bay along the coast north of Santa Barbara, and the San Francisco and Russian River systems, harbor porpoise surveys have shown that since bans first started being implemented, the populations have added roughly 8,230 new members.
It’s a significant triumph for the under-the-radar sea mammal, which in Morro Bay alone grew from 570 individuals in 1990 to over 4,000 by 2012.
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Another species that will have benefited from the gill net ban is great white sharks, which used to be caught by all manner of nets. Since the Marine Resources Protection Act of 1990, which was implemented in 1994 and which banned drift and set gill nets, very few great white sharks have been incidentally caught.
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As species both protected from international trade, and relatively unknown to science, the fewer members of the species that perish accidentally the better, since it’s difficult to correctly ascertain population levels.
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