Environmentalist Oppose Exemptions to Gillnet Fishing Rules

On September 20th, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which is responsible for managing fisheries off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington, will vote on a controversial proposal to gut protections for critically endangered sea turtles. Environmentalists are supporting the continuation of the existing time and area closures which have successfully reduced the risk of sea turtles being injured or killed by gillnet fishing.

“Not one sea turtle has been observed caught, injured or killed since the closures went into effect. Why should we throw out something that is working so well?,” asked Robert Ovetz, PhD, Save the Leatherback Campaign Coordinator with the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.

The measure to be considered on Tuesday will be to establish a procedure to allow exemptions to rules protecting endangered species such as the leatherback sea turtle. If approved, the decision goes to NOAA Fisheries for final approval. In October and November the council will consider interim exemptions to closures protecting sea turtles from gillnets on the West Coast.

Most at risk is the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle. Estimated to be 100 million years old, scientists now warn that it could go extinct in the Pacific in the next 5-30 years unless efforts are made to reduce the threat of being injured or killed by longlines and gillnets. The number of female nesting Pacific leatherbacks has declined by 95% since 1984. The US Pacific Coast is an important migratory route and foraging area for leatherback sea turtles and other marine species frequently caught by gillnets.

“The time and area closure provides urgently needed protection for the leatherback and other marine species from being injured or killed by gillnets. Granting exemptions to a handful of vessels would sabotage these efforts to prevent the leatherback from extinction,” said Ovetz.

In 2001, NOAA Fisheries also closed waters off Monterey Bay, California, and in the vicinity north to the 45° N latitude intersect with the Oregon Coast from August 15 through November 15 in response to the threat of a lawsuit. The region north of Point Conception had recently been closed during El Nino years as the result of another lawsuit in 2002 to protect loggerhead turtles, another species facing threat of extinction due to mortality caused by industrial fishing.

Known as “curtains of death” because they catch and kill everything in their path, large gillnets (also known as driftnets) were banned by the United Nations on the high seas in 1991. Along with sea turtles, gillnets also injure or kill sperm whales, humpback whales, fin whales, Steller sea lions and other threatened and endangered species. In fact, according to observer data obtained from NOAA Fisheries, 64 dolphins, whales , seals and sea lions have been killed by the gillnet fishery since 2002.

This year, 1,007 scientists from 97 countries and 281 non-governmental organizations from 62 countries delivered a letter to the United Nations urging it to implement a moratorium on industrial longline and gillnet fishing in the Pacific.