Center for Biological Diversity

Protecting endangered species and wild places through
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Environmental Groups Sue to Protect
Sea Turtles During El Niño Year

Warm Waters Bring Turtles Into
Contact With CA Drift Gillnets

Todd Steiner, Turtle Island Restoration Network, (415) 488-0370 x103
Brendan Cummings, Center for Biological Diversity, (909) 659-6053 x301

Forest Knolls, CA Yesterday Afternoon, environmental groups filed suit in federal district court in San Francisco against the federal government for failing to close portions of the California drift gillnet fishery during an El Niño year. During these weather conditions, endangered loggerhead sea turtles are more abundant along California’s coast and more likely to get entangled and drown in the gillnets. Despite a previous determination that closing the fishery south of Point Conception from August 15 to August 31 and from January 1 to January 31 during El Niño conditions is necessary to prevent "jeopardy" to the species, the government allowed the August closure period to come and go with no action. With the January closure period rapidity approaching, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network filed suit seeking an injunction to force the Bush Administration to adhere to the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

“We are simply asking the government to play by it own rules. Either it closes the fishery or we get the courts to,” said Brendan Cummings, attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We refuse to let sea turtles become the victims of bureaucratic footdragging.”

“You pick a species and this fishery kills it,” said Todd Steiner of Turtle Island Restoration Network. “Loggerhead sea turtles, sperm whales, humpback whales, fin whales, leatherback sea turtles, olive ridley sea turtles, green sea turtles, Steller sea lions, and the list goes on. The continued, illegal drowning of sea turtles in gillnets is truly one of California's hidden environmental crises.”

In October 2000, National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) own Biological Opinion called for this El Niño closure, but rules were not proposed for two years. A coalition of sport fishing and environmental groups repeatedly has urged the NMFS to finalize this rule. The opinion calling for the El Niño closure was developed in response to a previous lawsuit filed by Turtle Island Restoration Network and Center for Biological Diversity.

As early as March 2002, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that El Niño conditions were developing in the Pacific. Nevertheless, the August closure period for the Fishery required by a 2000 Biological Opinion was never implemented.

In June 2002, the Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Center for Biological Diversity formally notified the National Marine Fisheries Service they would sue if the closures to protect loggerhead turtles were not implemented.

On September 20, 2002, NMFS issued a proposed rule to implement the loggerhead closure. On November 7, 2002, NOAA announced that the El Niño condition was gaining in strength and that there would be “basin-wide mature El Niño conditions during December 2002-February 2003.”

On November 20, 2002, in response to an inquiry from the environmental organizations, NMFS indicated that the proposed rule closing the Fishery during El Niño events would not be finalized in time for it to be operative during the January 2003 closure period required by the Biological Opinion.

Drift gillnet fishing vessels currently are allowed to fish from August 15 to January 31. The rule shortens the season to September 1 to December 31 during El Niño years, because changes in ocean currents bring warmer waters and more loggerhead turtles north to southern California and into harms way.

This closure will effect the 81 boats that still are permitted to use drift gillnets, which are commonly called curtains of death because they drift below the surface and entangle and kill everything in their path. The boats still will be able to fish during that time. They just will have to do it north of Point Conception, which lies west of Santa Barbara near Lompoc and marks the edge of Southern California’s waters. The California/Oregon gillnet fishing industry fishes for swordfish and shark, both of which are threatened by overfishing pressures. High seas drift gillnets have been banned by the United Nations.

The case was assigned to Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero. The case number is C-02-5643-JCS. A copy of the complaint can be found at Further information on loggerhead sea turtles and the drift gillnet fishery can be found at


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