The ocean is vast, but it’s not infinite or indestructible. When humans harvest fish and other wildlife from our world’s seas, marine ecosystems and species feel the impact. In fact, most of the changes in the ocean we observe today — as well as the most immediate threats to marine species — are the result of unsustainable fishing.
First of all, too much fishing depletes marine species, often to the point of imperilment. Recent studies have documented the decline of 90 percent of large marine fish, and many marine animals now on the endangered species list, such as the white abalone, were put there largely by harvesters who didn’t know when to quit. Fisheries have had catastrophic effects on the ocean by disrupting the food chain, depleting water quality, destroying habitat, harassing and displacing wildlife, and otherwise altering the overall marine ecosystem.
And wherever there’s fishing, there’s bycatch — fisheries’ wasteful and unintentional capture of unwanted species. Commercial fishing creates millions of tons of discarded catch annually, including not just fish species but turtles, marine mammals, sharks, and even seabirds. Appallingly, hundreds of thousands of federally listed loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles are caught each year, with tens of thousands drowning as a result.
To protect and restore ocean species and ecosystems, the Center promotes better regulation of industrial fisheries, primarily targeting those fisheries that have the highest rate of bycatch — especially those affecting imperiled species such as the endangered leatherback. Our efforts have led to the total closure of the two most destructive California-based fisheries, a longline fishery for swordfish and a nearshore set-gillnet fishery in Monterey Bay and along the central California coast, both of which occurred within leatherback feeding grounds. Similar efforts led to a seasonal restriction of an offshore drift-gillnet fishery for swordfish and sharks that prohibits the use of this deadly gear off the central and northern California coasts when leatherback sea turtles are in the area. Unfortunately, under the Bush administration, no environmental victory was secure. In 2006, the Bush administration proposed to reopen California waters to longlines and drift-gillnets. New Center litigation caused the government to delay the gillnet permit in 2006 and finally abandon it in June 2007, and two months later, Center efforts led to the rejection of the longline permit. We and allies continue our work to maintain California’s waters as a true sanctuary for leatherbacks and other species, in 2012 filing a notice of intent to sue the federal government under the Endangered Species Act for authorizing California’s drift gillnet fishery.
Since the disastrous April 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we’ve stepped up our efforts to protect beleaguered Gulf species from more harm by commercial fisheries. After we filed a notice of intent to sue the Fisheries Service for failing to protect sea turtles from drowning in Gulf shrimp trawls, in June 2010 the agency announced it would take measures to address the increase in trawl turtle killings in the region.
In September 2011, the Center and Oceana filed a notice of intent to sue the federal government under the Endangered Species Act for authorizing California’s drift gillnet fishery, which had killed alarming numbers of endangered sperm whales, endangered leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles and other creatures in recent years.
We’ve also forced reforms or closures of fisheries off Hawaii, the East Coast, and even Antarctica. In 2012, the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed new protections for sea turtles that would require escape hatches in shrimp nets used by boats that operate in the shallow, inshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico and southeast Atlantic Ocean. In 2010, after seven years of litigation, the Fisheries Service announced it would form a “take reduction team” to protect false killer whales from longline fishing off Hawaii. In 2009, we joined a coalition of groups to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service for its failure to protect imperiled sea turtles from capture by the Gulf of Mexico’s commercial bottom longline fishery — and were successful just weeks later, when the agency announced an emergency closure of the fishery. Represented by Earthjustice, we also challenged a Fisheries Service rule that allows Hawaii’s longline fishery to catch nearly three times as many loggerheads as was previously permitted. In 2010, a 2008 petition filed by the Center and Turtle Island Restoration Network compelled the Fisheries Service to announce regulations banning swordfish imported from countries whose fishing practices aren’t as marine mammal-safe as U.S. methods. We advocate for Endangered Species Act protection for numerous species imperiled by fisheries across the globe, be they sea turtles and seabirds that drown as bycatch or abalone and sturgeon that are the targets of the fisheries themselves.
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