Conservation groups today announced plans to file a lawsuit to reinstate rules designed to protect endangered sperm whales from deadly, mile-long drift gillnets in ocean waters off California. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) let temporary regulations expire on August 6, without issuing permanent conservation measures for the protection of sperm whales. Those temporary regulations required a NMFS-certified observer to be on board vessels that would be fishing in waters deeper than 2,000 meters-- offshore areas that are most likely to have sperm whales, and required the closure of the fishery if one sperm whale was seriously injured or killed. Without these protections, the National Marine Fisheries Service is irresponsibly letting the fishery operate, in clear violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana, and Turtle Island Restoration Network submitted today’s 60-day notice of intent to sue to NMFS because they allowed emergency regulations to lapse just as the gillnet fishery is ramping up for the season.
“The Fisheries Service is knowingly allowing drift gillnets to operate illegally off California in clear violation of federal law, at the expense of endangered sperm whales and dozens of other animals that get indiscriminately killed in the deadly nets,” said Dr. Geoff Shester, California campaign director for Oceana. “We will continue to do everything in our power to reinstate sperm whale protections and ultimately phase out this destructive fishing method.”
“We can’t stand by and watch another endangered sperm whale drown in a deadly fishing net. This fishery has already claimed the lives of dozens of whales. As this fishery ramps up, this is the worst possible time for the government to strip away whale protections,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The emergency regulations, prompted by conservation groups’ threat to sue in September 2012 after learning an estimated 16 sperm whales were injured and killed by the fishery in 2010, first went into effect on September 4, 2013. They required California’s drift gillnet fishery to be shut down if a single endangered sperm whale was caught dead or injured and required independent observers on all drift gillnet vessels operating in offshore waters deeper than 6,600 feet (2,012 meters) where sperm whales are most often observed. The rules were enforced by requiring new vessel monitoring systems tracking the locations of all drift gillnet vessels off the West Coast.
NMFS renewed the temporary emergency measures on May 22, 2014, extending these protections until August 5, 2014. The agency states it is considering issuing permanent sperm whale measures in the future, but they have already indicated they will significantly weaken the sperm whale conservation measures by removing the ‘cap’ on sperm whale takes and by removing the requirement of 100 percent observer coverage in offshore waters. These offshore areas are among the only currently fishable areas through August due to the recent closure of most Southern California areas to drift gillnetting to protect loggerhead sea turtles during El Niño conditions. Without a hard ‘cap’ on sperm whale takes and a requirement for complete observer coverage of the fishery, the agency is failing in its responsibility to control the risk that drift gillnets will seriously injure or kill these endangered marine animals. The agency is acting contrary to the law and against public interest by not protecting endangered whales.
“Endangered whales should not be dying cruel deaths in California driftnets to provide high-priced swordfish steaks for our dinner plates. These intelligent, gentle creatures deserve to be able to swim freely off our California coast without the threat of entanglements or death in deadly driftnets,” said Todd Steiner, biologist and director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. "Sadly, the fisheries service is willfully violating federal law and failing to take much needed action to protect these ocean giants."
Today’s notice of intent to sue is a legal prerequisite to filing a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act. The notice announces the groups’ intent to sue the agency for allowing the fishery to injure and kill endangered sperm whales. The expiration of the regulations to reduce sperm whale mortality invalidated the permits required by marine mammal and endangered species laws.
Drift gillnet fishing for swordfish involves setting out mile-long nets at dusk that drift freely where fish, sharks, turtles, and marine mammals feed or migrate during the night. On average this California fishery — which operates primarily between Aug. 15 and Jan. 31 — catches and discards more than 100 protected whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions each year, in addition to thousands of sharks and other fish according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The impetus for the emergency regulations was the documentation by a government observer of the take of two endangered sperm whales in 2010; since most entanglements go unreported, the government estimates 16 sperm whales were injured or killed in the past five years, exceeding the “potential biological removal” established under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which is what the population can withstand.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 775,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. www.biologicaldiversity.org
Oceana is the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans. Oceana wins policy victories for the oceans using science-based campaigns. Since 2001, we have protected over 1.2 million square miles of ocean and innumerable sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and other sea creatures. More than 600,000 supporters have already joined Oceana. Global in scope, Oceana has offices in North, South and Central America and Europe. To learn more, please visit www.oceana.org.
Turtle Island Restoration Network is an international marine conservation organization headquartered in California whose 150,000+ members and online activists work to protect sea turtles and marine biodiversity in the United States and around the world. www.seaturtles.org