In response to pressure from conservation groups, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) today announced an area closure for the swordfish drift gillnet fishery in the Pacific Ocean off Southern California from July 25 through August 31 to prevent entanglements and drownings of endangered loggerhead sea turtles. This year’s El Niño conditions — warmer than normal waters — attract the endangered loggerhead sea turtles to the nutrient-rich waters off Southern California where the deadly fishery operates. This is the first time the conservation area has been closed since it went into effect over a decade ago.
NMFS is required by law to close the more than 25,000-square-mile Pacific Loggerhead Conservation Area to protect the sea turtles during June, July and August when an El Niño event is occurring or forecasted. The seasonal closure protects loggerhead sea turtles that follow warmer waters off California in search of their preferred prey, pelagic red crabs. Although NMFS implemented the conservation area and drift gillnet prohibition almost two months late, conservation groups commend the agency for taking the proper steps to ensure protection of endangered loggerhead sea turtles as the fishery picks up in mid-August. The swordfish drift gillnet fishery operates from May 1 to January 31, but over 90 percent of the fishing occurs from August 15 through January 31.
“Whenever drift gillnets are off the water, that is a good thing for endangered sea turtles, whales, dolphins, sea lions and many types of fish,” said Ben Enticknap, senior scientist with Oceana. “While the agency is temporarily closing the loggerhead sea turtle conservation area to drift gillnets as required by regulation, there are still other ways fishermen can responsibly catch swordfish at this time, including harpoon and surface hook and line gear. Swordfish drift gillnets are an inherently dirty fishing gear that ultimately needs to be phased out and permanently prohibited.”
Today’s action came after the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana, and Turtle Island Restoration Network called upon NMFS earlier this month in a letter urging them to implement this important closure. On July 10, the Center and TIRN filed a lawsuit to prompt timely action. In 2000 NMFS first announced that the drift gillnet fishery jeopardized loggerhead sea turtles during El Niño years. The agency established the Pacific Loggerhead Conservation Area in 2003 in response to litigation from the Center and TIRN.
“It’s unfortunate that it took the threat of legal action to spur federal regulators to follow the law and protect these gravely endangered sea turtles from the indiscriminate killing associated with mile-long gillnets,” said Center attorney Catherine Kilduff. “These gentle giants run great risks crossing the Pacific Ocean to feed off the coast of California and it’s our legal and moral duty to make sure they don’t drown in fishing nets once they get here.”
“We are glad to see that Pacific loggerhead turtles are now protected in California's coastal waters,” said Todd Steiner, a biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. “But enough is enough. It’s time for California to follow the lead of Washington and Oregon, and close this deadly fishery to protect not only sea turtles, but also whales, dolphins and sharks regularly killed by this fishery.”
Drift gillnets target swordfish and thresher sharks in ocean waters off California and form dangerous underwater walls that entangle whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, sea turtles and other species of sharks and ecologically and economically important fish. Once trapped in these nets, most animals drown. Between May 2007 and January 2013, the drift gillnet fishery discarded 61 percent of all marine animals it caught.
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.
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
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