Pacific Fishery Expansion Denied

Press release from Ocean Conservancy…..

San Francisco, CA — Responding to concerns by scientists and conservation groups, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) affirmed protections for critically endangered leatherback sea turtles in California waters. NMFS denied a proposed exempted fishing permit application (EFP) that would have enabled the expansion of the drift gillnet fishery into current conservation areas.

Drift-gillnets are mile and a half long nets that target swordfish, tuna and thresher sharks. The drift-gillnet fishery has been subject to a seasonal area closure to protect endangered leatherback sea turtles that migrate along the Pacific coastline during the late summer and fall. The closed area, known as the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area, encompasses approximately 180,000 square miles and extends from just south of Monterey, California north to Salem, Oregon. Since its implementation, the conservation area has successfully minimized harmful interactions between sea turtles and fishermen.


Expansion of the drift-gillnet fishery would pose an additional threat to the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle, already under strains caused by egg poaching on its nesting beaches, ingestion of plastics and entanglement in ocean debris. Estimated to be 100 million years old, scientists now warn that this species could go extinct in the Pacific in the next five to 30 years unless efforts are made to reduce the threat of being injured or killed by destructive fishing gear. Since 1984, the number of nesting female Pacific leatherbacks declined by 95%.

“Leatherback turtles are one of the most beautiful and endangered animals on our planet,” remarked Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, Senior Scientist with Ocean Conservancy and President of the International Sea Turtle Society, “and the emotion that compels us to save them is the same one that will help us save ourselves–empathy. In this
case, science, economics and ethics combined to make the right decision to protect sea turtles while they swim in California’s waters. But we still have our work cut out for us to bring them back from the edge of extinction.”

Despite the success of the area closure, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, under pressure from industry, voted last November to approve the EFP and rollback these critical protections. The U.S. Pacific is an important migratory route and foraging area for leatherbacks and other marine wildlife killed by gillnets. Along with sea turtles, drift-gillnets entangle and kill numerous protected and endangered species including sperm whales, humpback whales, fin whales, and sea lions. According to federal observer data, 64 dolphins, whales, seals and sea lions have been killed by the California-Oregon drift gillnet fishery since 2002. What’s more, the fishery has discarded more than half of its fish catch each year for the past 15 years. Those discards include recreationally valuable
species, such as striped marlin and skipjack tuna.

Last week however NMFS notified the Council that they were denying the EFP citing a recent scientific study which underscores the importance of near shore waters off the U.S. west coast as critical foraging habitat for migrating leatherback turtles. The study also noted that gear modifications that have minimized harmful interactions between drift gillnet gear and marine mammals, have not proven successful at avoiding sea turtles.

“Too often political and economic considerations interfere with important conservation goals,” observed Meghan Jeans, Pacific Fish Conservation Manager with Ocean Conservancy. “Fortunately, federal fishery managers did not bow to political pressure, and based their decision to disapprove the EFP instead on the precautionary principle
and the best available science. We commend NMFS for taking this crucial step towards putting leatherbacks on the path towards recovery and we call upon fishery managers and others to seek ways to fish more selectively and address all sources of turtle mortality.”

Peter Etnoyer (406 Posts)

PhD candidate at Texas A&M University- Corpus Christi and doctoral fellow Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies.