Center for Biological Diversity

Protecting endangered species and wild places of western North America
and the Pacific through science, policy, education, and environmental law.

Bush Administration Delays Rules to Protect
Endangered Sea Turtles And Whales

Environmentalists File Notice Against Fisheries Service
Over California Drift Gillnet Fishery

For immediate release: August 2, 2001

Brendan Cummings, Center for Biological Diversity 510 848 5486
Todd Steiner, Sea Turtle Restoration Project 415 488 0370

Today, environmental organizations filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for its failure to protect endangered sea turtles and marine mammals from drowning in large numbers in the California drift gill net fishery for Thresher Shark and Swordfish.

In March of 2000, the Sea Turtle Restoration Project/Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Center for Biological Diversity, two California-based environmental organizations, filed suit in federal Court to enjoin the NMFS from authorizing this fishery until it has met its legal requirement to take action under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to greatly reduce the kill of these protected species.

Following this, the NMFS issued a new Biological Opinion on October 23, 2000, that concluded that issuance of MMPA permits and the continued operation of the fishery would "jeopardize" the continued existence of the loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles. In order to avoid "jeopardy," NMFS must either close the fishery or find a "Reasonable and Prudent Alternative (RPA)."

NMFS stated that the fishery could continue only if new regulations were promulgated by August 1, 2001 that would reduce capture and mortality of the protected species through time and area closures for gillnet fishers.

Based on this premise, the lawsuit was settled. Unfortunately, no such regulations have been issued.

"Once again, the Bush administration is turning back the clock on environmental protections put in place by the previous administration-- this time in clear violation of the law," said Todd Steiner, director of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. He continued, "In the process, they are pushing the critically endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle one step closer to extinction."

In 1999, the fishery illegally captured or killed humpback whales, fin whales, Northern elephant seals, green sea turtles and olive ridley sea turtles, all protected under the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and/or State law. In addition, scores of dolphins (of three species), California sea lions, and several critically endangered leatherback sea turtles were captured.

"This fishery has repeatedly violated the ESA and the MMPA. NMFS's failure to even take the steps they themselves admit are necessary in their Biological Opinion is clearly illegal." said Brendan Cummings, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

"Leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles of the Pacific are critically endangered and their drowning in commercial fishing nets must stop, if we are to save these giant and ancient creatures from extinction," said Todd Steiner, Director of the California-based Sea Turtle Restoration Project (STRP). "The continued, illegal drowning of sea turtles in gillnets is California's hidden environmental crisis."

The California Drift Gillnet Fishery for Thresher Shark and Swordfish is managed by the state Department of Fish & Game, but much of the fishing effort occurs in federal waters. Since at least 1990, NMFS has monitored this fishery due to its high rate of bycatch. Approximately 100 boats participate in fishery. Sharks and swordfish, the target of the fishery, are also declining. Last year, NMFS banned the Atlantic drift gillnet fishery due to its high rate of sea turtle and whale mortality and the State of Washington also banned its drift gillnet fishery.

"The lack of action taken by the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect endangered sea turtles and whales is, unfortunately, what we have learned to expect from the agency," said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity. He continued, "Since NMFS has not done what the law requires it to do, legal actions have become necessary to ensure the survival of these magnificent animals."


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