El Niño Triggers Temporary Drift Gillnet Fishery Closure off Southern California
Press Release Date: June 2, 2015
Location: Monterey, CA
MONTEREY, CA— The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has announced it will close southern California ocean waters to drift gillnets in order to protect endangered loggerhead sea turtles. This legally mandated closure went into effect June 1 according to regulation and is prompted by current El Niño conditions–warmer than normal ocean waters. The closure will stay in effect until August 31, 2015.
Conservationists support this interim measure to protect the endangered turtles. This action should be part of a larger fishery management change to phase out drift gillnets in the swordfish fishery altogether. Drift gillnets used to catch swordfish tangle and kill many other marine animals wherever they are used off California’s coast, and must ultimately be replaced with cleaner fishing gear. These drift gillnets discard, on average, over 60 percent of their catch. In addition to sea turtles, discarded bycatch includes marlins, dolphins, whales, sharks, seals, ocean sunfish, and dozens of other species whose populations are unassessed. The vast majority of air breathing marine animals drown when captured by these nets.
“California’s drift gillnet swordfish fishery is deadly for all kinds of marine wildlife, so this closure will offer temporary relief as warm waters bring sea turtles to our shores in search of food,” said Geoff Shester, California campaign director with Oceana. “Ultimately, this dirty fishing gear needs to be replaced with cleaner fishing methods.”
In El Niño events, endangered loggerhead sea turtles follow the warmer than usual waters off southern California in search of food such as pelagic red crabs. Once here, the turtles are at risk from entanglement in drift gillnets used to catch swordfish. When El Niño is occurring or forecasted, the more than 25,000-square-mile Pacific Loggerhead Conservation Area (California ocean waters east of 120 degrees latitude) is, by law, closed to drift gillnet fishing from June 1 to August 31 and the public must be notified. Normally found further south in Mexican waters, pelagic red crabs are already being observed this year on Southern California beaches (see image below). The swordfish drift gillnet fishery operates from May 1 to January 31, but over 90 percent of the fishing occurs after August 15.
“The California drift gillnet fishery is among the world’s most destructive,” said Doug Karpa of Turtle Island Restoration Network. “We must keep these massive nets away from the world’s few remaining endangered sea turtles when they are in our waters.”
In 2000, NMFS first announced that the drift gillnet fishery jeopardized the continued existence of loggerhead sea turtles during El Niño years and in 2003 the agency established the Pacific Loggerhead Conservation Area, which was closed for the first time last year from July 25 through August 31. The closure came almost two months late, and only in response to a request from the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana, and Turtle Island Restoration Network. This year the Agency put the closure into effect on June 1, as required by regulations.
The Pacific Loggerhead Conservation Area closure comes as federal fishery managers prepare for the June 11-16 Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting in Spokane, WA, where the Council will discuss further actions to reduce bycatch in the swordfish drift gillnet fishery, including implementing “hard caps” on the bycatch of sea turtles, whales, and dolphins that would close the fishery if the caps were reached. The Council is also considering the long-term management of the swordfish fishery, including alternative low-bycatch methods to catch swordfish. In particular, recent experimental trials with deep-set buoy gear fished during the day off California have demonstrated that swordfish can be caught profitably with minimal bycatch.
“The high bycatch of iconic ocean species must be capped, controlled and ultimately put to a stop”, said Oceana’s Geoff Shester. “Hard caps should serve as an interim measure while the Council establishes a transition plan to prohibit drift gillnets in this fishery and replace them with cleaner gear types to catch swordfish, such as deep-set buoy gear”.