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Lawsuit Launched to Protect West Coast Whales From Dying in Nets

Swordfish Drift Gillnets, Sablefish Traps Pose Imminent Hazard 


Conservation groups today filed a notice of intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect endangered whales from mile-long drift gillnets and strings of sablefish pots off the West Coast. After two years of record reports of whales entangled in fishing gear off the West Coast -- more than 60 in 2015 alone -- 40 whales were reportedly entangled as of June 30, putting 2016 on pace to break records again. New information indicates that one humpback whale population that migrates from Central America to feed off California consists of only about 400 individuals.

Two fisheries (swordfish and sablefish) that are known to entangle whales had permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act that lapsed Sept. 4. The Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network submitted today's 60-day legal notice because the gillnet fishery is just starting to ramp up for the season, and whale entanglements in both the fisheries likely already exceed the number allowed in the expired permits. Now any entanglement of an endangered whale in gillnets or pots violates the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

"We can't stand by and watch as whales tangle up and die in fishing gear. It's just not right," said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney with the Center. "The situation has gotten worse in recent years, and it's frustrating that the federal government hasn't done what's needed to protect whales along the West Coast."

"Killing endangered whales to catch swordfish off the California coast is a crime against nature and needs to stop immediately," said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. "It is unfathomable that the National Marine Fisheries Service is willfully violating federal law and allowing this to happen, and we will do what it takes to stop it."

Last week the Fisheries Service finalized a decision to change the Endangered Species Act status of many humpback whales, downlisting the Mexico population that feeds off California and Oregon from "endangered" to "threatened." But the Fisheries Service cited increasing entanglements as a reason why the recovering Mexico population was not being stripped of all its Endangered Species Act protections, as originally proposed, saying current protections will remain in place. The Central America population remained listed as "endangered."

Drift gillnet fishing for swordfish involves setting out mile-long nets at dusk that drift freely where fish, sharks, turtles and marine mammals feed or migrate during the night. On average this California fishery -- which operates primarily between Aug. 15 and Jan. 31 -- catches and discards more than 100 protected whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions each year, in addition to thousands of sharks and other fish, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For the past few years, the Fisheries Service has closed large areas to drift gillnet fishing in the summer to protect endangered loggerhead sea turtles. These closed areas reopened to fishing on Sept. 1.

The sablefish pot fishery consists of strings of approximately 35 pots or traps on the bottom of the ocean with weighted line between the traps. Whales get entangled in the ground line between the traps and in the line from the buoy to the traps.

At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature — to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive.

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