Fisheries Service Announces Plan to Issue Authorize Capture of Endangered Whales

Forest Knolls, California – – On Friday, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced their proposal to issue a permit that will authorize the capture of the endangered humpback, sperm and fin whale by the California/Oregon drift-gillnet fishery. This announcement comes at a time industry representatives for the drift-gillnet fishery are pressuring the NMFS to expand this controversial fishery off the California and Oregon coast. Since 2001, the drift-gillnet fishery, which targets swordfish, tuna and thresher sharks, has been subject to a seasonal area closure to protect endangered leatherback sea turtles that migrate along the Pacific coastline during the late summer and fall. The closed area, known as the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area, encompasses approximately 180,000 square miles and extends from just south of Monterrey, California north to Salem, Oregon. Since its implementation, the conservation area has successfully minimized harmful interactions between sea turtles and fishermen. Despite this success, fishery managers are currently considering an industry proposal to rollback protections and allow up to 30 drift-gillnet vessels to fish in the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area between August 15th and November 15th.

Expansion of the California/Oregon drift-gillnet fishery poses an enormous threat to the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle. Estimated to be 100 million years old, scientists now warn that this species 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 destructive fishing gear. Since 1984, the number of nesting female Pacific leatherbacks declined by 95%. The US Pacific is an important migratory route and foraging area for leatherbacks and other marine wildlife killed by gillnets.

“Not one sea turtle has been caught, injured or killed by this fishery since the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area went into effect four years ago. Why should we jettison something that is working so well?” commented Karen Steele, Save the Leatherback Campaign Coordinator with the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. “The conservation measures currently in place reflect the best available scientific information, yet industry wants to ignore the science, rollback protections and push endangered sea turtles and whales to the brink.”

Along with sea turtles, drift-gillnets entangle and kill numerous protected and endangered species including sperm whales, humpback whales, fin whales, and sea lions. According to federal observer data, 64 dolphins, whales, seals and sea lions have been killed by the California-Oregon drift gillnet fishery since 2002. What’s more, the fishery has discarded more than half of its fish catch each year for the past 15 years. Those discards include recreationally valuable species, such as striped marlin and skipjack tuna.

The Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area was created in 2001 in response to a lawsuit seeking to prevent the extinction of Pacific leatherback sea turtles. Despite the success of the recent closures, leatherbacks remain in critical condition and are listed as endangered. The industry is seeking approval of an exempted fishing permit (or “EFP”), which would authorize fishing that would otherwise be prohibited in the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area. Normally, EFPs are reserved for data collection efforts or limited testing such as vessels seeking to test out new fishing gear or practices. In this instance however, the industry proposal has no other purpose than to increase fishing effort and increase catch.

“This is simply an illegal attempt to circumvent current conservation regulations by allowing the very same vessels using the very same fishing gear that are now prohibited from fishing in the conservation area to begin fishing again,” said Brendan Cummings, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Last 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 gillnet fishing in the Pacific. Echoing this call, 133 scientists from 24 countries sent a letter in February 2006 to the Pacific Fishery Management Council and NMFS highlighting the vulnerability of Pacific sea turtle and marine mammal populations and opposing efforts to expand the California/Oregon drift gillnet fishery. “Pacific leatherbacks are still in deep decline and only a few thousand nesters remain. We need to protect them on the nesting beaches and wherever they roam in the ocean,” commented Dr. Larry Crowder, a noted marine scientist with Duke University. “It makes no sense to reopen a fishery known to have significant bycatch.”

“There is no valid justification for expanding this fishery into current protected areas,” said Meghan Jeans, Pacific Fish Conservation Manager for The Ocean Conservancy. “It’s irresponsible to put these sea turtles and whales at risk. We should be celebrating successful conservation efforts, not rolling them back.”

NMFS will be accepting public comments on this issue until August 10, 2006.