Turtle conservation on the West Coast of the USA

Primary author: Professor David Ehrenfeld

February 1, 2006
Mr. Donald McIsaac
Executive Director, Pacific Fishery Management Council
7700 NE Ambassador Place, Suite 200
Portland, OR 97220-1384

Dear Mr. McIsaac:
At its March 5-10, 2006 meeting, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council will take a final vote on proposals that, if implemented, will undermine conservation measures protecting the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle as well as seabirds, marine mammals and sharks and other fish by allowing drift-gillnets and pelagic longlines to be used in areas along the California and Oregon coastline in which these destructive gear types are currently prohibited.


Since 2001, areas north of Point Conception to an intersect with the Oregon coast and out beyond the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to 129° West longitude have been closed to drift-gillnet fishing from August 15th through November 15th in order to protect leatherback sea turtles which seasonally inhabit these waters.  Similarly, pelagic longline fishing has been banned within 200 miles of the California coast for well over a decade, and in March 2004 this ban was extended to the entire West Coast EEZ for all pelagic longlining, and to the high seas beyond the EEZ for West Coast-based shallow-set pelagic longlining.  The proposals under consideration by the PFMC would allow drift-gillnets back into the seasonally closed area when leatherbacks are present, as well as allow an “exempted” longline fishery in the EEZ off California.
The leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) is at the top of the list of species being driven to the brink of extinction in the Pacific by the global expansion of industrial fishing. The Pacific leatherback turtle’s nesting population has plummeted from 91,000 in 1980 to fewer than 5,000 in 2002. Leatherback sea turtle populations are in decline throughout their range. Leatherback sea turtles are listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and critically endangered by the World Conservation Union on the IUCN red list of threatened species. Leading scientists warn that unless immediate and significant steps are taken, the leatherback sea turtle, which has swum the oceans since the time of the dinosaurs 100 million years ago, will soon become extinct. Moreover, the plight of the leatherback sea turtle, the world’s largest and most wide-ranging sea turtle, may foreshadow a host of extinction events that may significantly alter the oceans’ ecosystem functions.

The current drift-gillnet and longline closures have provided a successful working balance between the interests of fishers and the urgent need to protect the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle. During the past three years of the drift-gillnet closures, this fishery, which targets swordfish, tuna and sharks, had no recorded takes of leatherback sea turtles. Such successful time/area closures, which eliminate the overlap of longline and drift gillnet fishing gear with the presence of leatherback sea turtles, should serve as a successful model that should be replicated elsewhere in the Pacific where the leatherback is at the greatest risk of extinction.
Last year, 1,007 scientists from 97 countries and 281 non-governmental organizations from 62 countries delivered a letter to the United Nations urging it to implement a moratorium on harmful gillnet and longline fishing in the Pacific. The current restrictions on the longline and gillnet fisheries off California and Oregon are a model conservation measure in the spirit of this statement that should be emulated not abandoned.

The ban and time and area closures both demonstrate that the US is complying with not only the UN but also best scientific practices to protect our marine resources.
We, the undersigned, therefore urge the Pacific Fisheries Management Council to do the following:
* Maintain the current ban on all pelagic longline fishing within the West Coast U.S. EEZ and on shallow-set or swordfish longlining on the high seas beyond the U.S. EEZ.
* Maintain the current time/area closures that prohibit the deployment of drift-gillnet fishing gear in areas off the California and Oregon coasts when leatherback sea turtles likely to be inhabiting these waters.

Signed by fifty scientists in addition to the letter's author, David Ehrenfeld.

David Ehrenfeld
Professor of Biology
Dept. Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources
Cook College, Rutgers University
New Brunswick, NJ  08901-8551   

Founding Editor of Conservation Biology.