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Monday, July 15, 2024 | Back issues
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Conservation groups angle for sea turtle protections in federal suit

Fishing for bottom feeders off California's coast endangers sea turtles, conservation groups say.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network sued the National Marine Fisheries Service on Thursday, accusing the federal agency of failing to protect endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles and their habitats from sablefish trapping gear that can injure or kill the turtles.

The groups seek to block a Dec. 1 rule that allows pot fishing for bottom-feeding sablefish in protected coastal areas near Oregon and California that have been closed since the early 2000s.

Leatherbacks get tangled in pot traps, causing them to drown to death or become seriously injured, the plaintiffs say, contributing to dwindling populations: If current trends keep up, leatherbacks may be effectively extinct in the West Pacific within 20 years.

“It’s horrific that hungry leatherback sea turtles have to navigate a vast maze of fishing pot strings after migrating thousands of miles to California,” Catherine Kilduff, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release.

Almost 2,000 square miles of the newly opened area are critical to leatherback sea turtles' habitat, the center says. The turtles feed off California’s central coast, including at the Cordell Bank, Greater Farallones and the Monterey Bay national marine sanctuaries.

“These areas have already been designated critical habitat for the sea turtles, and they shouldn’t be a death trap," Kilduff said. "The federal government was irresponsible in rubber-stamping the reopening of these areas to dangerous sablefish pots. Leatherbacks are on the verge of extinction, and we can’t let them be killed by commercial fishing gear.”

The fisheries use two-mile strings of 30 to 50 pots, tethered by vertical lines to a surface buoy. Those strings entangle and drown the leatherbacks — the largest turtle and largest living non-crocodilian in the world — as they migrate from Indonesia to feed on jellyfish in the waters off of California’s coast, the complaint explains.

The plaintiffs say the National Marine Fisheries Service is violating the Endangered Species Act by allowing pot fishing without properly reviewing the fishery’s impact on leatherbacks, and is relying on an “inadequate and outdated” biological opinion the service issued in 2012 on operation of the fishery.

The number of leatherbacks killed in the fishery has exceeded the level permitted in the incidental take statement in the existing biological opinion, the groups say.

To make fishing safer, the Center for Biological Diversity has proposed that the Service require all fisheries that use pot gear to convert to new ropeless or “pop-up” gear within the next five years. The center asks that the agency prioritize the transition in national marine sanctuaries, which would benefit the leatherback sea turtles feeding in central California.

The National Marine Fisheries Service did not respond to requests for comment before this story was published.

Categories / Environment, Government

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