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Protecting Marine Mammals Off California's Coast

The California drift gillnet fishery has more than 100 vessels that fish offshore from San Diego to San Francisco, primarily for swordfish. Drift gillnets can be over a mile long and up to 158 feet wide. They are attached to the stern of a fishing boat and allowed to drift below the ocean surface during the night. When the nets are pulled up, virtually all captured creatures drowned.

Four species of threatened and endangered sea turtles are killed by gillnets, including the endangered Pacific leatherback, threatened loggerheads and olive ridley turtles -- often at numbers exceeding the incidental take allowed by the National Marine Fisheries Service. In addition, a wide variety of fish species, whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals are illegally killed in the nets.

On behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, Earthjustice's Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford sued the National Marine Fisheries Service for its failure to protect endangered sea turtles and protected whales and dolphins from gillnet fisheries off the California Coast. Under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act, the agency is required to adequately evaluate the effects of these fisheries on threatened and endangered marine species.

As a result of the suit, NMFS has instituted time/area closures to protect sea turtles and, for the first time, has brought the California/Oregon gillnet fishery under a Marine Mammal Protection Act permit.