The ocean is vast, but it’s not infinite or indestructible. When humans harvest fish and other wildlife from our world’s seas, marine ecosystems and species feel the impact. In fact, unsustainable fishing is one of the oldest threats — now joined by ocean acidification, global warming, offshore drilling, pollution and many others — in showing immense oceans as what they really are: fragile webs of life that can fall apart in the face of imbalance.

Most obviously, too much fishing leaves too few fish, depleting many marine species to the point of imperilment. Studies show that the vast majority of the ocean’s large fish, like bluefin tuna, are in dangerous decline; other marine animals, such as white abalone, have now been placed on the endangered species list. Fisheries have also had catastrophic effects on the ocean by disrupting the food chain, depleting water quality, destroying habitat, harassing and displacing wildlife, and otherwise altering the overall marine ecosystem.

And wherever there’s fishing, there’s bycatch — fisheries’ wasteful and unintentional capture of species for which they’re not in the market. Commercial fishing creates millions of tons of discarded catch annually, including not just fish and shark species but turtles, whales, dolphins, vaquitas, sea lions and even seabirds. Appallingly, hundreds of thousands of federally listed loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles are caught each year, with tens of thousands drowning as a result.

For example, California’s drift gillnet fishery sets out mile-long nets overnight to drift freely where marine animals feed, retrieved the next day full of both swordfish and non-target sharks, fish and marine mammals — with the latter usually dumped back into the ocean, often dead or injured. Longline vessels present a double danger, trailing up to 60 miles of nearly invisible fishing line while also deploying as many as 1,000 baited hooks that entice animals of the sea and of the air (seabirds like albatrosses, which dive for the bait).


To protect and restore ocean species and ecosystems from overfishing, the Center promotes better regulation of industrial fisheries, primarily targeting those fisheries with the highest rate of bycatch — especially those affecting imperiled species such as the endangered leatherback. Our efforts have led to the total closure of the two most destructive California-based fisheries — a longline fishery for swordfish and a nearshore set-gillnet fishery in Monterey Bay and along the central California coast — both of which occurred within leatherback feeding grounds.

We’ve worked for more than a decade against longline fishing off Hawaii, which is hurting false killer whales and loggerheads. And we’ve been involved in extensive litigation concerning fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, stepping up our work there after the 2010 BP oil spill to safeguard beleaguered Gulf species from more harm by commercial fisheries — for example, defending sea turtles from drowning in shrimp trawls. We’ve also forced reforms or closures of fisheries off the East Coast (to protect the Atlantic white marlin) and even Antarctica.

Our supporters helped us score a win in 2013 against California’s remaining swordfish gillnet fishery, which has killed alarming numbers of sperm whales, leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles, bottleneck dolphins, California sea lions and many other species. After the fishery’s recent entanglement of two sperm whales, we rallied our online activists to submit more than 13,500 comments to the Fisheries Service, which halted fishery operation in late July pending a meeting on emergency measures to safeguard sperm whales. This followed a 2012 notice of intent to sue the federal government under the Endangered Species Act for authorizing the fishery’s operation — among more than a decade of previous Center actions against commercial fishing in the region.

Our work to save biodiversity from fisheries off Hawaii dates almost as far back as our work in California. After seven years of litigation, in 2010 the Fisheries Service announced it would form a “take reduction team” to protect false killer whales from longline fishing off Hawaii. Represented by Earthjustice, we also challenged a federal rule allowing Hawaii’s longline fishery to catch nearly three times as many loggerheads as was previously permitted.

In 2013, our international fisheries work led us to formally petition the United States government to sanction Mexico for catching thousands of endangered loggerhead sea turtles in its shark and halibut fisheries off the Baja peninsula.

And our campaign had already gone international in 2008, when we filed a petition to compel the Fisheries Service to ban swordfish from countries with fishing practices less marine mammal-safe than U.S. methods. In early 2015 we and our allies finally won that battle, reaching a landmark settlement in which the U.S. government agreed to adopt new rules that ensure seafood imported into the United States meets the same standards for protecting whales and dolphins internationally as seafood imported out of the United States. In December 2016 — after more than four years of study — the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed a rule to address sea turtle captures in skimmer trawls, nets used primarily in bays and estuaries that are currently exempted from requirements for turtle-excluder devices. 

Photo courtesy NOAA