Marine Conservationists Challenge Drift Gillnet Fishery
November 27, 2012
In September of this year, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill naming the Pacific leatherback sea turtle the state’s official marine reptile. This leathery, aquatic giant is a Monterey Bay native; although it is endangered throughout its range, the species is known to feed on jellyfish and sea squirts in the Monterey Bay and surrounding near-shore areas.
However, ocean conservation groups worry that due to drift gillnet fishing just off the California coast, this species may not have long to represent its state.
Modern drift gillnets can be over a mile long and float in the open ocean for hours. Commercially valuable fish, such as swordfish and thresher shark, swim through the gaps in the net and become entangled. Commercial species aren’t the only ones affected.
According to a recent article published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, up to 16 whales and 49 dolphins may have been killed by the gillnet fishery off the California coast in 2010.
No sea turtles were found entangled in gillnets, but that doesn’t mean they’re unaffected. The sea squirts they eat make up 98 percent of drift gillnet bycatch. This depletion in food supply may be responsible for the recent 80-percent decrease in leatherback hatchlings, as reported by NOAA Fisheries.
On Sept. 6, three conservation nonprofits—Oceana, The Center for Biological Diversity and SeaTurtles.org—filed a notice of intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service for authorizing California’s drift gillnet fishery.
Under the Environmental Protection Act, NMFS must ensure its fishing practices do not threaten endangered species like leatherbacks. The pressure from conservation groups may result in further study on the effects of gillnet fishing and its impacts on turtles.