As Fisheries Service Dithers, New England Porpoises Drown

By Carl Safina and Andrew Read

Photo: Harbor porpoise surfacing
Harbor porpoise surfacing in the Bay of Fundy. Credit: Ari Friedlaender.

Every twelve hours in the Gulf of Maine, a porpoise swims into a net it cannot see, struggles until it runs out of breath, and drowns. That’s because New England gill-net fishermen simply refuse to use a proven solution that they helped develop, a solution fishermen on the West Coast have successfully used to virtually eliminate deaths of dolphins and whales in similar nets there—a solution that the law requires in New England.

Fisheries managers had decided to temporarily close certain areas to gill-net fishing this month to help prevent more endangered porpoises from drowning. But new regional Fisheries Administrator and former New Bedford mayor John Bullard just gave those fishermen a free pass to ignore the law for another four months. This has so frustrated a national team of scientists who for years have worked on this problem, that they are boycotting a meeting scheduled for this week. Instead of more delay, we think the fishermen should have been told: Obey the law, or lose your nets.

Putting little sound alarms called “pingers” on gill-nets alerts porpoises to the presence of a net by emitting a tone every four seconds. Using them is easy. Yet New England fishermen have already gotten three years of extensions to get in compliance with a law that is fully a decade and a half old. Now, mainly to save New Hampshire fish processors income in the crucial fall season, Fisheries Service Regional Administrator John Bullard decided to delay the planned October closure until February.

Photo: Putting pinger on gill net
Pinger on gill net gear. Credit: Danielle Waples.

Four months is a death warrant for another couple of hundred porpoises before fishermen feel any consequence of ignoring the law. But the new delay suits many fishermen just fine. After all, what’s a couple of hundred more, compared to the 16,000 porpoises they’ve killed since 1990?

By announcing his decision without consulting the expert team whose official job is to work with officials and fishing industry reps to design ways to reduce harbor porpoise drownings (the Harbor Porpoise Take Reduction Team), Mr. Bullard so angered the team’s scientists that they are boycotting a multi-day meeting scheduled for the week of October 29 in Providence. The Team’s experts believe that, after three years of delay, further deferral signals to scofflaw fishermen that “denial and delay” can be a way of life.

Ironically, New England fishermen worked with scientists to develop pingers. Then, fishermen themselves pushed for their use in the 1990s, as an alternative to closing fishing areas. They got what they wanted.

And, when the National Marine Fisheries Service first required New England gill-net fishermen to use pingers in 1998, porpoise deaths indeed plummeted 95 percent, from more than 2,000 in 1994 to under 100 in 2001.

But federal enforcement faded. Many fishermen stopped using pingers. And—they frequently encroached into areas that had been officially closed to protect porpoises.

By 2003, fishermen fished without pingers on almost 75 percent of all nets. And they set their nets in closed areas in another 8 percent.  And these statistics come from fishing trips with federal observers on board!; we’ll never know how many violations went unobserved. Porpoise deaths quickly rose again; more than 1,000 drowned in 2005.

Three years passed. In 2008, the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, together with representatives of the fishing industry, proposed that unless compliance improved, additional areas would be closed to fishing. Then the fishing industry was given a generous two-year grace period to use more pingers.

But when the “grace” period ended in 2010—then again in 2011—less than half of observed nets complied with the law. The most recent estimates of the number of porpoise deaths is almost 800 annually, well above the legal limit. The porpoise population can’t withstand this intensity of mortality.

New England fishermen have exceeded federal limits on porpoise mortality in six of the past seven years, simply because they are unwilling to use the technique that virtually ends porpoise deaths. As a consequence, federal officials announced that new areas would be temporarily closed to gill-netting beginning on October 1, 2012. But just five days before the closure was to take effect, Mr. Bullard unilaterally announced another delay.

Fishermen work on the public’s territory, catching cod and haddock and other wild creatures belonging to all of us. So, next time you’re thinking of buying cod, ask if it was caught with gill-nets.  If it was, consider more ocean-friendly hook-caught cod—or maybe try the pasta until the region’s entire fishing community pressures their gill-netting peers to clean up their act and comply with the solution. We, and the porpoises, deserve better. Enough is enough. The fishermen have no legal or moral right to kill porpoises so needlessly.

Photo: Porpoise killed in gill net
Dead porpoise in a gill net. Credit: John Wang.

When will fishermen learn that when you take too much, you’re left with too little? Mr. Bullard’s decision typifies the kind of end-run around scientific advice that has for decades failed New England’s long-term ocean health. The federal government recently declared New England’s fishing industry an economic disaster. Mr. Bullard had those economics in mind, but instead of delay, he should have enforced the required solution.

We think the choice for Mr. Bullard is not whether to close or open areas. Nor does he need to make a decision affecting processors one way or the other. The decision is whether to favor fishermen working legally or those working illegally. We think he should have said to gill-net fishermen, “Look, this problem is solved; pingers work and they’re required. Now stop playing games, and implement the solution: Use the pingers—or we’ll take your nets.”


Carl Safina is host of PBS’ new series, “Saving the Ocean” and  founding president of the Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University; he writes and speaks on ocean issues. Andrew Read is Stephen Toth Professor of Marine Biology, Duke University; he has worked with New England fishermen and administrators on harbor porpoise avoidance since the 1990s. He will not be attending the next meeting.

Changing Planet


Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.