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Environment: Emerging El Niño triggers call for fishing restrictions to protect endangered sea turtles

Loggerhead sea turtle. Photo courtesy NOAA/Marco Giuliano.

A loggerhead sea turtle swimming over a coral reef. Photo courtesy NOAA/Marco Giuliano.

Ocean advocates say warming ocean drives sea turtles into floating gillnets

Staff Report

FRISCO — Along with the potential for affecting weather over North America, the emerging El Niño conditions on the Pacific Ocean could pose a  threat to endangered loggerhead sea turtles, conservation advocates say, calling on federal fisheries managers to implement legally required restrictions on gillnet fishing to protect the turtles.

When ocean waters in the eastern Pacific get warmer, the loggerheads tend to move into commercial fishing grounds, where they often die after getting tangled up in nets. When El Niño is occurring or forecasted, the Pacific Loggerhead Conservation Area (California ocean waters east of 120 degrees latitude) is, by law, closed to drift gillnet fishing during June, July and August.

Despite NOAA’s predictions of a 70 percent likelihood of El Niño conditions this summer, the agency has failed to notify the public that the fishing prohibition is in effect — in clear violation of federal law, according to a letter sent today by Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Turtle Island Restoration Network.

“Sea turtles will drown in drift gillnets if the government doesn’t act,” said Dr. Geoff Shester, California campaign director for Oceana. “California’s ocean waters are especially important to loggerhead sea turtles in El Niño conditions.”

The Pacific Loggerhead Conservation Area was established in 2000 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 act quickly when conditions trigger the need for protections leaves the loggerhead sea turtle’s long-term survival up to chance,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Gambling with the future of California’s sea turtles is deeply irresponsible and unkind — and strongly suggests smart fisheries management can’t coexist with wasteful and destructive mile-long drift gillnets.”

Ocean conservation advocates allege the federal government has a history of ignoring its own regulations. Most recently, in 2010, the killing of endangered sperm whales by the drift gillnet fishery should have triggered immediate emergency action. But the agency failed to take action for almost three years.

“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.

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 week 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 to be cleaned up.

In today’s letter the conservation groups cite several sources of predicted and confirmed El Niño conditions that unequivocally demonstrate that the Pacific Loggerhead Conservation Area has been triggered. The groups indicate they will consider taking additional action if the Fisheries Service has not implemented the closure by July 8.

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