By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - Environmentalists have filed a lawsuit seeking to force U.S. fisheries managers to implement plans for restricting the number of whales and turtles permitted to be inadvertently snared in drift gillnets used for catching swordfish off California's coast.
The proposed rule, endorsed in 2015 by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, would place numerical limits on "bycatch" of whales and other marine creatures, and suspend swordfish gillnet operations if any of the caps are exceeded.
The regulation was expected to gain final approval from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. But it was withdrawn last month after the Commerce Department agency determined the cost to the commercial fishing industry outweighed conservation benefits, agency spokesman Michael Milstein said on Thursday.
In a lawsuit filed on Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, the environmental group Oceana accused the Commerce Department under President Donald Trump's administration of violating U.S. fisheries laws and the federal Administrative Procedures Act. The suit seeks a court order requiring the agency ultimately to put the restrictions into effect.
"This rule is critical to protect endangered whales and turtles from death and injury in this wasteful fishery," Oceana attorney Mariel Combs said.
Drift gillnets, consisting of mile-long (1.8 km-long) strands of nylon mesh draped 200 feet (60 meters) deep in the ocean from surface floats, pose a hazard to a wide assortment of marine mammals and turtles that can become entangled and drown.
According to Oceana, vessels targeting swordfish ended up discarding 61 percent of all animals caught in their gillnets from 2004 to 2017. The group also cited figures showing that 53 whales, 35 sea turtles and hundreds of dolphins, seals and sea lions were inadvertently captured between 2001 and 2015.
Under the proposed rule, the swordfish grounds off Southern California would be temporarily closed to commercial harvests if bycatch limits set for any one of nine protected marine creatures were reached or exceeded, including bottlenose dolphins, four species of whale and four types of sea turtles.
A temporary gillnet closure imposed in 2014 to protect endangered sea turtles in Southern California waters halted fishing operations for a fleet of 16 boats whose annual swordfish and thresher shark catch was then valued at about $1 million on average, a small fraction of California's overall commercial fishery.
Milstein said commercial fishermen have adopted new measures to mitigate bycatch, including a device that lowers the top of the gillnet below the water's surface where whales and turtles are likely to swim.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Steve Gorman and Sandra Maler)