Endangered Pacific Leatherbacks Safe from CA Gillnets for Another Year

By March 11, 2013Sea Turtles

State of California Seeks More Science Before Opening Protected Sea Turtle Habitat to Swordfish Fleet

Today, federal fishery managers meeting in Tacoma, WA, voted to maintain the no-fishing zone along the California and Oregon coasts to protect the highly endangered Pacific leatherback for at least for a year while they gather more scientific data.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council (the Council) delayed immediate action on expanding the California gillnet fishery into the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area but decided to take up the swordfish gillnet expansion again in 2014 after another year of research.

“If they seriously look at the science, they will keep it closed, but we fear politics, not science may dictate the ultimate decision,” said Teri Shore, Program Director, Turtle Island Restoration Network. “We know that in another year, Pacific leatherbacks will still be going extinct and gillnets still killing endangered marine animals and tons of unwanted sharks and sunfish. The research needs to focus on phasing out high bycatch gillnet gear now, not keeping the door open to more gillnetting and excess bycatch later.”

While the Council dismissed a slate of options to reduce the duration and size of the PLCA, it supported the state of California’s proposed alternative to explore fishing in the PLCA directly west of Point Sur from 12 to 100 miles off the coast and to compile another year’s worth of research on sea turtles, alternative fishing gear, and adequacy of observer coverage in the gillnet fleet before making a decision on expansion.

Download the motion from the State of California passed today by the Council by clicking here.

Download the Highly Migratory Species Advisory Subpanel Report referred to in the California motion.

In today’s action, the state of California passed a motion requesting the following by early 2014. Summarized by TIRN. [TIRN comments on motion in brackets]

1. Consider opening the PLCA from Point Sur west from 12 to 100 miles with 100 percent observer coverage and/or use of electronic Vessel Monitoring System. [This is an area of high leatherback concentration. TIRN opposes opening of this area. TIRN supports 100 percent observer coverage and VMS in existing fleet.]

2. Evaluate sea turtle behavior along California coast and operations of swordfish fleet based on oceanic conditions to see if interactions between the two can be predicted and avoided through “adaptive management.” [TIRN opposes this approach because it is unproven and not supported by existing science. TIRN supports leatherback research in the California Current for conservation but not for the purpose of increasing risk to the species as bycatch in the gillnet fishery for swordfish.]

3. Consider use of limits on turtle takes in the fishery so that it would shut down for the season if a certain number of turtles are taken like in the Hawaii swordfish fishery. [TIRN opposes this approach because current take in the CA gillnet fishery is close to zero due to the success of the PLCA. Three turtles were observed taken in 10 years. No increased take is acceptable due to decline of leatherbacks and loggerheads. The Hawaii longline fishery recently was allowed to increase its take of endangered sea turtles and TIRN is suing under the Endangered Species Act.]

4. Continue research with deep-set longline gear in PLCA. [TIRN opposes this since we already know from the tuna longline fleet that deep set gear catches and drowns sea turtles. Longlining is also banned along the U.S. West Coast and has been prohibited by the state of California since 1989 due to high bycatch.]

Ocean conservation groups, the California Coastal Commission, California State Assembly, scientists and thousands of people have registered opposition to any expansion of the drift gillnet fleet into protected sea turtle habitat. The action would increase the risk of entanglements of endangered sea turtles, whales, dolphins, sea lions, sea birds and tons of unwanted fish including endangered sharks.


New science predicts extinction of the Western Pacific leatherback sea turtle in 20 years if new conservation measures are not immediately implemented. See this link for more info on the science.

Since the PLCA was established, one leatherback sea turtle was observed entangled and released alive compared to more than 100 killed in the previous decade when the area was open to drift gillnets. Ten loggerhead sea turtles have been observed entangled and three killed, compared to 25 killed in the previous decade.

Swordfish landings in the PLCA total less than 2 percent of historic landings. Proposed fishing in the southern section of the PLCA is estimated to produce less than $200,000 in revenues.