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Loggerhead sea turtle

Daily Breeze, July 28, 2014

Drift gill-net fishery closed to make safe passage for migrating loggerhead turtles
Sandy Mazza

For the first time since its creation more than a decade ago, a sea-turtle conservation area that encompasses 25,000 square miles of ocean off Southern California has been closed to gill-net fishing for fear of injuring or killing the federally protected animals.

National fisheries managers implemented the ban Friday on all large-mesh drift gill-net fishing through the end of August across the Pacific Loggerhead Conservation Area, which runs from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border.

Environmental organizations that have been trying to close the local gill net fishery cheered the decision Monday. The fishery uses gill nets to nab swordfish and thresher sharks, but unintended species routinely get caught in the gear.

“The government’s failure to implement its own rule to protect the Pacific loggerhead turtle from California drift nets, after it up-listed 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.

Though loggerheads are the most prevalent sea turtle species seen in North America, the North Pacific stock is critically endangered as a result of interaction with fishing gear that drowns or otherwise kills them accidentally. Also, their Japanese nesting grounds have been systematically destroyed for decades by sea walls installed to prevent beach erosion, according to scientists who study the animals.

The Pacific Loggerhead Conservation Area was officially implemented in 2003 after National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists found that warmer sea-surface currents brought to the West Coast during so-called El Nino years also bring the turtles, who then face death if they swim into a gill net.

This year, scientists predict a 70 percent likelihood that El Nino conditions will occur this summer, and that prediction jumps to 80 percent for the fall and winter. Experts expect an influx of fish and marine mammal species to Southern California from more tropical regions because of the weather phenomenon.

Earlier this month, representatives from the Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network filed a lawsuit against NOAA seeking a closure of the drift gill-net fishery because of impending El Nino conditions.

Craig Heberer, a lead NOAA biologist who oversees West Coast fisheries of highly migratory species, said scientists were already in the process of reviewing the loggerhead population and sea-surface temperatures. When they decided the conditions were highly likely to draw the turtles, they implemented the closure.

“We’re not asleep at the wheel when it comes to our duty to the Endangered Species Act,” Heberer said. “We found elevated sea-surface temperature, the presence of loggerheads, and other factors. There hasn’t been a declared El Nino event yet, but we felt the factors in place warranted us to implement the trigger.

“But this is something we’ve been looking at since March, and the fact that we were sued had no bearing on our decision because we had to wait for sea-surface temperature data.”

Federal regulators have tried to strike compromises between environmentalists and fishers, who have substantially reduced bycatch in the past decade with acoustic pingers and smaller-mesh nets. Swordfish fishers argue that they are more highly regulated than other fisheries around the world and that, if they’re shut down, swordfish will be imported from countries with less stringent fishing guidelines.

The drift gill-net fishery season usually runs from August through the winter and, if the waters remain warmer, NOAA officials will have to consider extending the ban past August. NOAA’s Pacific Fishery Management Council has already made moves toward stronger regulation of the gill-net fishery this year, and it is studying the use of safer swordfish fishing gear.

This is the second year in a row that the fishery has been subject to closure if one sperm whale is killed in a gill net. Oceana and other environmental organizations are seeking to establish hard caps like the one for sperm whales on humpback whales and dolphins killed or injured by the nets.

“We’ve been trying to get this fishery phased out and closed,” said Ben Enticknap, a scientist and campaign manager for Oceana, a nonprofit environmental organization working to ban gill net fishing. “The conversation has changed (in recent years) from expanding the fishery to putting hard caps on it, so we’re seeing some progress.

“We’re trying to get them to implement permanent rules on species of whales, rare and sensitive shark species, and many different types of dolphin killed in this fishery.”


Copyright © The Daily Breeze.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton