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SACRAMENTO, California -- The federal Pacific Fishery Management Council voted on Saturday to pursue the expansion of California's devastating drift gillnet fishery for swordfish and sharks into an area that is currently off-limits to that fishing to protect critically endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council's action specifically asked for an analysis of just how much of the sea turtle protected area could be reduced to allow more drift gillnet fishing. The Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area prohibits drift gillnet fishing between Aug. 15 and Nov. 15 along the California coast north of Point Sur out to the 200-mile "economic zone." It was established in 2001 to protect the endangered leatherback, which migrates from Indonesia specifically to feed on jellyfish off the U.S. West Coast. The Council tried to open the area once before in 2006, but the attempt was defeated by conservation groups.
"All the science suggests that endangered sea turtles need more protection, not less," said Oceana California Program Director Geoff Shester. "Drift gillnets have unacceptable levels of bycatch of some of our most treasured and vulnerable marine life, so if we want to catch more swordfish, we need to pursue cleaner fishing methods."
Every year the deadly fishery indiscriminately captures and kills or injures more than 130 protected whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions, as well as thousands of sharks and other marine animals. The vast majority of those animals are dumped back into the ocean, dead or injured. Expanding the drift gillnet fishery would also lead to increased bycatch of sunfish, bluefin tuna, blue sharks, striped marlin and albacore tuna.
A new federal bycatch report also revealed that fishery observers witnessed two endangered sperm whales entangled and killed in the fishery in 2010. Since most entanglements go unseen due to low observer coverage, federal fishery managers estimated that as many as 16 sperm whales were likely to have been injured or killed in the fishery that year. This is well above the legal limit of sperm whales allowed to be captured in the California drift gillnet fishery.
"Fishing that sweeps up the ocean's marine mammals and sea turtles in big fishing nets, killing and maiming them, needs to be limited — before it's too late," said Catherine Kilduff of the Center for Biological Diversity. "To go backwards on saving these amazing creatures makes no sense. Our public resources can't sustain the cost of fish caught by indiscriminate fishing methods."
The California drift gillnet fishery targets swordfish and thresher shark and uses nets that stretch a mile in length. The nets are set to "soak" overnight and catch almost all fish and animals that swim into them in the dark ocean.
The proposed drift gillnet expansion would also encroach on an ocean area that in January was designated as critical habitat for the endangered leatherback sea turtle.
The National Marine Fisheries Service and the state of California are also pushing to increase domestic Pacific swordfish landings by initiating a new shallow-set longline fishery for swordfish despite the fact that the market trend in swordfish demand has been decreasing since the 1990s. Longlining along the coast is now prohibited by the state of California because of high bycatch of protected marine species and has been consistently defeated by conservationists, scientists and the public. New lower bycatch gear will also be studied by the council.
"The California drift gillnet fishery needs to be phased out if we are serious about achieving healthy fisheries," said Teri Shore, program director at SeaTurtles.org, a marine conservation group based in West Marin, Calif., that has won strong protections for marine life harmed in the drift gillnet fishery. "Sea turtles are getting more endangered, not less; these federal fishery managers are going rogue in trying to push longlining that nobody wants — not us, not the fisherman, not the state. Who wants to eat fish that is caught while killing sea turtles or whales?"
Assembly member Paul Fong (D-Mountain View), who passed last year's shark fin ban, recently introduced legislation (A.B. 1776) that will designate the leatherback sea turtle as California's official state marine reptile.