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Turtle Island Takes Legal Action to Protect West Coast Whales From Dying in Driftnets

This month, Turtle Island and Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to protect endangered whales from mile-long driftnets, and strings of sablefish pots off the West Coast.

In the past two years record numbers of whales entanglements in fishing gear have been reported off the West Coast.

  • More than 60 entangled whales were reported in 2015
  • 40 whales were reportedly entangled as of June 30, 2016. This put 2016 on pace to break records yet again.

New information indicates that the humpback whale population that migrates from Central America to feed off the California Coast consists of only 400 individuals. To this population, any entanglements and deaths are a serious matter.

Two fisheries (swordfish and sablefish) that are known to entangle whales had permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act that lapsed Sept. 4. Turtle Island Restoration Network and The Center for Biological Diversity submitted a 60-day legal notice because the California driftnet fishery for swordfish is just starting to ramp up for the season, and whale entanglements in both the fisheries likely already exceed the number allowed in the expired permits. Now any new entanglements of an endangered whale in driftnets or pots is a violation of the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Humpback whales come in contact with both the driftnet fishery and the stable pot fishery.

The sablefish pot fishery consists of strings of approximately 35 pots or traps on the bottom of the ocean with weighted line between the traps. Whales get entangled in the ground line between the traps and in the line from the buoy to the traps.

The driftnet fishery consists of less than 15 vessels that set huge, mile-long nets out to float over night with the hope of catching swordfish. Instead, these nets entangle, drown, kill and harm a wide array of marine wildlife from dolphins to sea turtles. Turtle Island’s legal action with CBD is an effort to protect whales from distress and entanglements. We will keep you updated on this issue here on our blog.