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Porpoises Rebound in a Big Way Following California Ban on Indiscriminate Fishing Nets

After decades of use, ‘gill nets’ and the fishing strategies that used them have been banned by California law, and that has been a boon for seabirds, sharks and the timid harbor porpoise.

California Coast / Joseph Plotz, CC license

The years between 1987 and 2002 saw many gillnet bans enacted in counties along the California coast where dead marine animals washed up on beaches entangled in nets, causing outrage among locals.

Used for literally thousands of years, the gillnet easily catches fish when the fibers catch on the gills of fish, but it is also likely to catch other animals such as sharks, otters, and seabirds.

The harbor porpoise, which is actually one of the smallest toothed whales on Earth, is a very secretive animal and difficult for marine biologists to count, but there has been such a marked increase that success is obvious.

Karin Forney, a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has been studying them for three decades.

“They are capable of bouncing back,” Forney told the LA Times. “They have a resilience and they will recover if we just let them.”

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The rebound could almost be considered an understatement. Since the bans were introduced, harbor porpoise populations have added about 8,200 new members, in Monterrey Bay, Morro Bay, Santa Barbara, and the San Francisco and Russian River systems.

Marcus Wernicke,, Porpoise-Conservation, Society, CC license

It’s a significant triumph for the hidden marine mammal, which in Morro Bay alone grew from 570 individuals in 1990 to more than 4,000 in 2012.

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Another species that will have benefited from the ban on gillnets are the great white sharks, which used to get caught by all kinds of networks. Since the Marine Resources Protection Act of 1990, which was implemented in 1994 and prohibited drifting and setting of gillnets, very few large white sharks have been caught bycatch.

That’s great news because since sharks are relatively unknown to science, the fewer members of the species are accidentally killed, the better, as population levels are difficult to determine.

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