The Beacon

Removing Walls of Death: Saving Sea Turtles from Drift Nets

The leatherback, a common victim of drift gillnets. Photo: NOAA

An endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle swims through the cold, nutrient-rich waters off California where it has made an impressive journey from its nesting beaches in Indonesia to feed on jellyfish. But, it encounters an unwelcome surprise, a mile long drift net in which its flipper becomes entangled.

Because this net sits overnight in the water column to catch its targeted commercial species, swordfish and thresher sharks, this net will not be pulled up until the following morning. In the meantime, the sea turtle is unable to surface for air and drowns. The drift gillnet fishery takes, on average, 138 marine mammals per year including sperm whales, humpback whales, pilot whales, minke whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions—not to mention thousands of sharks and other fish. The vast majority of those animals are dumped back into the ocean, dead or injured.

Due to concerns over bycatch resulting from the use of drift gillnets, Washington and Oregon have prohibited fishermen in their state from using these destructive nets off their coast. This leaves California as the only west coast state still allowing this deadly gear. 

Not only are drift gillnets still used off California, but the Pacific Fishery Management Council is meeting in Tacoma, Washington this Sunday where they will consider multiple proposals that would all allow the drift gillnet fishery to expand and encroach into the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area (PLCA, an area specifically closed to drift gillnets in an effort to protect sea turtles), and expand into recently designated critical habitat for the endangered turtle.

After all the effort that has gone into creating protected areas for the ocean’s largest sea turtle it is appalling that the Council is contemplating jeopardizing these conservation accomplishments.

The Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area (PLCA) was designated in 2001 to protect leatherback sea turtles from drift gillnets by closing the area to this method of fishing annually from August 15 to November 15. And the closure is working. Only one leatherback has been taken since the PLCA was created. Additionally, just last year the National Marine Fisheries Service designated over 40,000 square miles of ocean waters off California, Oregon, and Washington as critical habitat for these ancient sea turtles. And with the encouragement of thousands of California residents, the state legislature and Governor Jerry Brown designated the Pacific leatherback as the Golden State’s official state marine reptile.

These protections are needed more now than ever in light of a new study recently published by the Ecological Society of America indicating these western Pacific leatherback sea turtles will go extinct within 20 years if the current persistent population decline trends continue. So how is it that federal fisheries managers are actually considering allowing these destructive gillnets back into the Leatherback Conservation Area?

Usually a leader in conservation, it is surprising that California is still permitting the use of drift gillnets despite the fact that the fishery is dwindling and the demand for swordfish has decreased, likely due to federal advisories about high mercury levels. The only change the Council should consider is phasing out drift gillnets and replacing them with gear that does not result in this disturbing bycatch and that is proven to be economically viable.

Before drift gillnets increased in popularity, harpoons were skillfully used by fishermen to catch swordfish and resulted in zero bycatch. Swordfish landed by harpoon also fetch a higher price at the dock because they are delivered fresh and arrive to the market in a more pristine condition.  Harpoons are in use today, just not with the same frequency they were before they were largely replaced by drift gillnets in the 1980’s. It’s time to return to a harpoon driven fishery and consider the use of experimental cleaner gear like buoy gear.   

Oceana will be weighing in at the Council meeting this weekend, urging our federal fisheries managers to phase out drift gillnets and create incentives for cleaner gears to ensure a vibrant, healthy, sustainable marine ecosystem and ocean-based economy into the future.

To learn more about the impacts of drift gillnets and what Oceana is doing to protect the open ocean marine life impacted by these nets, check out http://oceana.org/en/our-work/promote-responsible-fishing/bycatch/drift-gillnets/overview

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