For Immediate Release

August 18, 2017


Andrew Ogden
Legal Program Director
Turtle Island Restoration Network

Todd Steiner
Executive Director
Turtle Island Restoration Network

After Being Sued, Feds Agree to Review Whale Killing Driftnet Fishery

(San Francisco Bay Area) – Less than two months after Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN) initiated a lawsuit to protect endangered whales from the drift gillnet fishery for swordfish off California’s coast, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has agreed to conduct a review to determine whether this fishery is violating the US Endangered Species Act (ESA).

“Most people are shocked to learn that whales and other marine mammals are still being killed by a drift gillnet fishery operating out of California,” said Andrew Ogden, Senior Attorney for Turtle Island. “This action is another step in Turtle Island’s long campaign to end the destructive practices of the last drift gillnet fishery in the United States. While we welcome this first step in response to our lawsuit, NMFS needs to implement and enforce more stringent and enforceable measures to stop the injury and killing of these magnificent animals.”

Weighing up to 90 tons, humpback whales that migrate from Mexico and Central America feed off the California coast each year. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, their population fell 90% by 1960. While some populations have partially recovered, they are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act, and entanglement in fishing gear continues to negatively impact the West Coast populations.

According to TIRN’s data, in 2015 a greater number of humpback whales were entangled in drift gillnet gear than permitted under NMFS’s regulations, and in 2016 a humpback was “taken” in violation of the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Entanglement in fishing gear impairs a whale’s ability to swim, feed and nurse its young, and usually causes serious injury or death of the whale.

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“Whales deserve protection,” said Todd Steiner, TIRN’s Executive Director. “The driftnet fishery is antiquated, barbaric, and needs to be shut down. Bolder action needs to be taken to prevent entanglement and drowning of whales.”

Driftnets, often described as “curtains of death,” are nets over a mile-long and 400 feet deep that catch everything that swims into them. Swordfish, the targeted species, only accounts for about 25% of the catch from this outdated and inefficient fishing method.

The California Drift Gillnet Fishery has been documented as killing or injuring more marine mammals, including endangered species such as humpback whales and sperm whales, than all other observed fisheries on the West Coast combined. The drift gillnet fishery also kills a disproportionate number of non-endangered species, including gray whales, dolphins and porpoises, harbor seals and sea lions. Endangered leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles historically have been caught with this fishery.

Turtle Island’s suit alleged that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is in violation of ESA’s prohibition on taking the endangered humpback by exceeding the permitted levels for incidental take in 2015 and 2016.

The suit has directly resulted in the re-initiation of consultation regarding the driftnet fishery’s interactions with endangered humpback whales. Turtle Island will monitor the consultation process to ensure that whales are protected.

“We will carefully watch-dog the process to ensure maximum protection of whales and other species to prevent death and serious injuries to these protected species,” added Ogden.

TIRN continues to advocate for regulatory agencies to permanently close down the California driftnet fishery which, despite its small size of less than 20 active vessels, kills a disproportionate number of marine mammals and sharks. Decades of regulations and technical fixes have not brought the levels of marine animals killed to acceptable levels.

Resources and photographs

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