For Immediate Release, July 10, 2014

Feds Fail to Enforce Drift Gillnet Fishery Closure During El Niño

SAN FRANCISCO— A lawsuit filed by Turtle Island Restoration Network and Center for Biological Diversity today seeks to protect endangered sea turtles off the coast of Southern California by requiring the National Marine Fisheries Service to implement the Pacific Loggerhead Conservation Area, a fishery closure during June, July and August of predicted El Niño years. Pacific loggerhead sea turtles come to the area to feed during El Niño years’ warmer-than-usual waters. The drift gillnet fishery, which uses mile-long nets soaked overnight to catch swordfish and thresher shark, catches and drowns more sea turtles during El Niño conditions.

“El Niño’s warm waters bring rarely seen sea life to Southern California — tropical tunas, warm-water whales and endangered loggerhead sea turtles,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “A few short months of a small area closed to drift gillnet fishing saves sea turtles’ lives during El Niño years. There’s no time to lose in getting the government to do its duty and close this fishery.”

The Pacific Loggerhead Conservation Area was established in 2000 after advocacy by the two groups to prevent the drift gillnet fishery from jeopardizing the loggerhead sea turtle’s existence. The seasonal closure protects loggerhead sea turtles following warmer waters off California in search of their preferred prey, pelagic red crabs. The agency failed to implement this closure during the 2002–2003 El Niño, prompting litigation resulting in the current prohibition on fishing during observed or predicted El Niño conditions.

“The government’s failure to implement its own rule to protect the Pacific loggerhead turtle from California driftnets, after it uplisted the species from threatened to endangered, adds fuel to the movement to phase out this destructive fishery that kills thousands of whales, dolphins and sea turtles,” said Todd Steiner, a biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network.

In today’s lawsuit the conservation groups cite several sources of predicted and confirmed El Niño conditions that unequivocally demonstrate that the requirement to close the Pacific Loggerhead Conservation Area to fishing for the season has been triggered. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted a 70 percent chance of an El Niño this summer and 80 percent chance this fall and winter. In Southern California reports of early yellowfin tuna and dorado catches — fish that usually aren’t caught until September — signal El Niño conditions, as do sightings of Bryde’s whales, rarely seen off California.

Drift gillnets target swordfish and thresher sharks in ocean waters off California and form dangerous underwater walls that entangle whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, sea turtles, other species of sharks, and other ecologically and economically important fish. Once trapped in these nets, most animals eventually drown.

Between May 2007 and January 2013, the drift gillnet fishery discarded 61 percent of all marine animals it caught. Just last month the federal Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to consider new protections for several endangered species caught as bycatch in this fishery, acknowledging that the fishery needs reform.


Turtle Island Restoration Network is an international marine conservation organization headquartered in California whose 150,000+ members and online activists work to protect sea turtles and marine biodiversity in the United States and around the world.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 775,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.