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August 10, 2005

Endangered Turtles May Lose Protections on West Coast

Fisheries Council Sub-Groups to Propose Gutting Rules Limiting Deadly Fishing Technologies .

Forest Knolls, California - On August 3-5, two sub-groups of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which is responsible for managing fisheries off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington, will be considering controversial proposals to gut rules to protect endangered species. Most at risk is the Pacific leatherback sea turtle, the largest turtle in the world. Environmentalists are rallying to the defense of the existing rules which have been seen as an international model for protecting marine ecosystems.

In response to lawsuits by environmentalists, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency Fisheries agency banned longline fishing on the West Coast and restricted gillnets, also known as "curtains of death," to protect endangered sea turtles and other marine species. On August 3-5, the Pacific Fishery Management Council's Highly Migratory Species Management Team and Highly Migratory Species Advisory Subpanel will be considering proposals to reverse or weaken these rules putting these species, some of which teeter on the brink of extinction, at greater risk of being injured or killed.

Most at risk is the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle. Estimated to be 100 million years old, scientists now warn that it could go extinct in the Pacific in the next 5-30 years unless efforts are made to reduce the threat of being injured or killed by longlines and gillnets. The number of female nesting Pacific leatherbacks has declined by 95% since 1984. The US Pacific Coast is an important migratory route and foraging area for leatherback sea turtles.

"These rules are crucial for protecting the leatherback and other marine species from being injured or killed by gillnets and longlines. Eliminating rather than strengthening protections for these critically endangered turtles would be a huge and possibly irreversible mistake," said Todd Steiner, Executive Director of Sea Turtle Restoration Project.

After the Hawaiian longline fishery was shut down by a federal district court in 1999 for catching too many sea turtles, about three dozen Hawai'ian longline vessels flouted a gap in federal regulations by moving their swordfish operations to California. Last March, NOAA Fisheries banned California longlining. The closure was in response to a decision by the 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals that the council had violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to properly evaluate the impact of longlining on these species.

According to the Pacific Fisheries Management Council's website, allowing longline vessels fishing for swordfish to use "circle hook" fishing gear would be enough to restart the fishery. The "circle hook" has been widely criticized because it is being used although the research has never been independently peer reviewed to prove that it effectively protects sea turtles and other marine species. 
"Allowing longline fishing in California again would reward renegades who mocked the authority of a federal court," lamented Robert Ovetz, PhD, Save the Leatherback Campaign Coordinator with the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.
In 2001, NOAA Fisheries also closed waters off Monterey Bay, California, and in the vicinity north to the 45° N latitude intersect with the Oregon Coast from August 15 through November 15 in response to the threat of a lawsuit. The region north of Point Conception had recently was during El Nino years as the result of another lawsuit in 2002 to protect loggerhead turtles, another species facing threat of extinction due to mortality caused by industrial fishing.

Known as "curtains of death" because they catch and kill everything in their path, large gillnets (also known as driftnets) were banned by the United Nations on the high seas in 1991. Along with sea turtles, gillnets also injure or kill sperm whales, humpback whales, fin whales, Steller sea lions and other threatened and endangered species.

This year, 1,007 scientists form 97 countries and 281 non-governmental organizations from 62 countries delivered a letter to the United Nations urging it to implement a moratorium on industrial longline and gillnet fishing in the Pacific.
"There is no excuse for taking a step back on restricting the use of gillnets or longlines. The first ones to pay the price for allowing more of these curtains of death will be sea turtles and other endangered marine wildlife," added Ovetz.
Resources:

For a copy of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project's new book Striplining the Pacific on the impact of longline fishing on the Pacific leatherback go to: http://www.seaturtles.org/press_release2.cfm?pressID=259

For a copy of the scientist and NGO letters to the UN go to: http://www.seaturtles.org/press_release2.cfm?pressID=261

For information about the Pacific Fisheries Management Council meeting go to: http://www.pcouncil.org/events/2005/hmsmtap0705.html

For a review copy of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project's new documentary film Last Journey for the Leatherback? contact Robert Ovetz, PhD at 415 488 0370 x 106.

The Sea Turtle Restoration Project is a California-based international marine conservation organization that works to protect sea turtles and other marine species in the United States and in countries around the world. For more information about sea turtles and the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, please visit: www.seaturtles.org and www.savetheleatherback.com


SEA TURTLE RESTORATION PROJECT
POB 400/40 Montezuma Avenue | Forest Knolls, CA 94933 USA
Ph. +1 415 488 0370 ext. 106| Fax +1 415 488 0372
robert@seaturtles.org ? www.seaturtles.org


Contact: Robert Ovetz, Sea Turtle Restoration Project, PhD, +1 415-488-0370 x106, robert@seaturtles.org