Nets often mean unintended deaths of marine mammals 'You live in fear that you might accidentally net one of these things'


OCEAN CITY, N.J. -- Commercial fisherman Donny Whiteside considers it a bad omen when he checks his gill nets and finds that species he isn't after - including an occasional harbor porpoise - have become entangled in his gear.

"It's just not good, it bothers me to see them in there," said Whiteside, 32, formerly of Newport News, Va., who recently moved to the Jersey shore to try to make a living netting fish like herring and shad during the spring run.

"You live with the fear that you might accidentally net one of these things, and that you'll get caught in the process. When it happens, it always makes me wonder what the rest of my season will bring."

Environmentalists may be wondering, too, with the wash-up of eight dead harbor porpoises, a federally protected species, in a two-day period recently on beaches along the 35-mile stretch between Margate and Cape May. A ninth, unidentified, marine mammal was found partially decomposed on a beach in Ocean City, according to Bob Schoelkopf, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine.

By state and federal laws, fishermen are required to report any incidental and illegal catches - such as netting a harbor porpoise - to authorities so that the number of accidental "takes" can be tracked, according to Tina Berger, a public-affairs and resource specialist for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission based in Washington.

But commercial fishermen, fearing everything from impromptu on-board inspections to sanctions on the amount of their catches, are hesitant to make the reports.

"Only twice in 20 years have I seen a fisherman make a report, and both were from the same fisherman," Schoelkopf said. "So what is reported is contrary to the numbers of strandings we're seeing up an down the coast. I think by not reporting it, the federal government may become even more suspicious in the long run."

'Take reduction team'

That may be what has prompted the Atlantic Marine Fisheries Commission to create a "take reduction team" to devise a plan that may help reduce the number of porpoises and other protected species accidentally being netted during the harvest of other types of fish and shellfish, according to Berger.

A recent amendment to the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act has prompted the assembly of the team, which involves more than 30 experts, including commercial fishermen. The team has met four times to study ways of decreasing the unwanted catches from New York to North Carolina, Berger said.

"It is really a very tricky process and none of us feels very comfortable with this problem," Berger said. "I really feel for the fishermen, because they have a lot of stuff hitting them from all over the place. But we also have to look at how we can protect these other species and reduce the number of unwanted takes. I think an important part of making those determinations will ultimately be the accurate reporting of unwanted takes by the fishermen themselves. We do need more cooperation on their part."

So far this year in New Jersey, Whiteside says he hasn't come across any unwanted species in his nets, which he has draped like wide curtains a couple of hundred yards off the beaches of this resort. He checks them daily and expects to "make a decent living" out of what he catches.

"But I guess there are always some casualties, some mistakes in every business," Whiteside shrugs. "It's a shame, but it happens."

Schoelkopf agrees that the wash-ups are an annual springtime event that happens when commercial fishermen like Whiteside erect the mesh gill nets between buoys along the coast.

Porpoises attracted

Porpoises feed on the species being caught in the nets and are attracted to the mesh contraptions. Later in the season as the water warms, if the fishermen are having a good run and have kept the nets in place, other protected species, such as bottlenose dolphins, may also be in danger of being caught.

"Their fins get caught in the nets and when they are unable to swim free, they panic and get even more entangled and then eventually drown," Schoelkopf said of the sea mammals.

Four porpoise carcasses washed ashore recently bearing cuts indicating that they had been caught in nets. The others were too decomposed to make a preliminary determination.

All the carcasses were trucked to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington so that necropsies could be performed. The Smithsonian was also expected to ship back to the stranding center a chest freezer so that future wash-ups can be temporarily preserved, Schoelkopf said.

"Usually we send them to the University of Pennsylvania's veterinary school, but because of the large number in such a short amount of time, we sent them to the Smithsonian," Schoelkopf said.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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