Earlier this month, several conservation groups, including Oceana, announced plans to file a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to protect sperm whales from deadly, mile-long drift gillnets used in the California drift gillnet fishery. NMFS allowed temporary regulations for sperm whales to expire on August 6, without instating permanent conservation measures for these whales—a move that violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act (ESA). This notice of intent to sue is a legal prerequisite to filing a lawsuit under the ESA.
“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,” Oceana’s California campaign director for Oceana Dr. Geoff Shester said in a press release. “We will continue to do everything in our power to reinstate sperm whale protections and ultimately phase out this destructive fishing method.”
Oceana, The Center for Biological Diversity, and Turtle Island Restoration Network submitted this 60-day notice of intent to sue NMFS since the agency allowed emergency regulations to lapse, just as the gillnet fishery is ramping up for the season. The emergency regulations first went into effect on September 4, 2013 and were 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.
These regulations required that a NMFS-certified observer was on board vessels fishing in waters deeper than 6,500 feet—the offshore areas most likely to have sperm whales—and required that the whole fishery shut down if one sperm whale was seriously injured or killed. The rules were additionally enforced by new vessel monitoring systems that tracked drift gillnet vessel locations off the West Coast.
“The agency is acting contrary to the law and against public interest by not protecting these endangered whales,” said Ben Enticknap, Oceana’s Pacific Campaign Manager and Senior Scientist. “Without a hard ‘cap’ that closes the drift gillnet fishery in the event of a sperm whale take, 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 whales.”
NMFS renewed the temporary emergency measures this past May, and extended these protections through August 5. 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.
Drift gillnets, sometimes referred to as “walls of death,” have exceptionally high bycatch rates. On average, this California-based fishery — which operates primarily between August 15 and January 31 each year — 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.
To learn more about Oceana’s work to protect marine life from drift gillnets and instate cleaner gear types in the fishery,click here.