When humans overfish, our oceans suffer.
In a single year, U.S. fisheries unintentionally catch almost 2,000 federally protected marine mammals, almost 12,000 sea turtles and more than 7,600 seabirds. Worldwide more than 650,000 marine mammals die as fishery “bycatch” annually. Fishing gear can cause months of suffering when it ensnares a migrating whale. And if that whale is freed, the same animal can become entangled again.
Largely thanks to work by the Center, today more than 120 nations exporting fish to the United States must meet U.S. standards for protecting whales and dolphins. The Center is also known for our work to protect the Gulf of Mexico's near-extinct vaquita porpoise from nets cast for the illegal totoaba trade, its biggest threat.
After suffering decades of decline due to entanglement in shrimp-fishing gear, vaquitas — the world's smallest, most endangered porpoises — are down to only 30 individuals left on Earth.
The Center has won more than 300,000 square miles of ocean as federally protected “critical habitat” for Northwest Atlantic loggerhead sea turtles and 40,000-plus square miles off the U.S. Pacific Coast for leatherbacks. We’ve earned loggerheads three years’ protection from dangerous, mile-long drift gillnets off Southern California. And we’ve defended in court 8.6 million acres of coastal and riverine critical habitat for the West Coast’s threatened green sturgeon.
To protect and restore ocean species and ecosystems from overfishing, we promote better regulation of industrial fisheries, primarily targeting those fisheries with the highest rate of bycatch — especially those affecting imperiled species like the leatherback.
Off the U.S. West Coast
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.
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.
We're also defending marine life from California's commercial Dungeness crab fishery — whose thick ropes, connected to heavy crab traps, injure and kill whales and sea turtles. Prompted by steep annual increases in reported whale entanglements and a lawsuit by the Center, in 2020 California finalized a rule to reduce the risk that endangered whales and sea turtles will get entangled in this gear.
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 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 U.S. 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.