Environmentalists say the potential legalization of long mesh fishing nets, known as gillnets, could leave an already endangered species of sea turtle shell shocked and struggling to survive.

The Pacific Fisheries Management Council – a federal agency that monitors the fishing industry – voted Sept. 20 to consider allowing fishermen to use gillnets during the migratory season of the leatherback sea turtle. Currently, it is illegal to use such nets during the season, which lasts from Aug. 1 to Nov. 15, because the turtles can get trapped in the nets and die. If the council decides to allow the use of gillnets at its next meeting, scheduled for Nov. 3 and 4, council members will also outline specific guidelines for the nets’ use, said Pacific Fisheries Management Council Environmental Chair Christopher Dahl.

The council’s plan to allow gillnet use could result in decreased environmental protection along a stretch of coastline from central Oregon to lower Monterey that is currently a safe haven for migrating turtles, Dahl said. He said the proposition to allow gillnet use during the migration season was proposed by council members, many of whom are fishermen.

Gillnets are only illegal in the specified areas and only during the migratory season, but the existing restrictions on their use are crucial to the survival of the leatherback sea turtle species, said Robert Ovetz, Coordinator for the Save the Leatherback Sea Turtles Campaign. He said gillnets also threaten other endangered species such as humpback whales, sperm whales and Steller’s sea lions. .

“Gillnets are long mesh nets, described as ‘curtains of death,'” Ovetz said. “They are essentially designed to catch fish; and animals are almost always dead by the time they reach the surface.”

The council will likely approve the relaxed gillnet restrictions, Dahl said. If it does, he said, it will institute a trial period first, during which fishing vessels will be required to obtain permits from the Pacific Fisheries Management Council in order to use the nets. In addition, Dahl said, a federally subsidized observer will be placed on each vessel to record what is caught in the gillnets and to ensure that the nets are being used properly. He said the data collected by such observers will help the council formulate a permanent plan to allow gillnet use with enough regulations to ensure the survival of the leatherback sea turtles.

“The council is likely to adopt procedures allowing these exemptible fishing permits,” Dahl said, “Environmental assessments will be prepared providing analysis projecting how many sea turtles may be taken. The council, based on that analysis, will choose a preferred system from the range of alternatives.”

Dahl said the Pacific Fisheries Management Council currently places federal observers on 20 percent of fishing vessels along the coast. He said the Coast Guard and the federal observers work together to monitor local boats and, when a fisherman is caught using gillnets illegally, the punishment ranges from fines to boat confiscation.

Ovetz said the increasing amount of human activity along beaches of the Pacific coast, which are the turtles’ breeding grounds, are already a major threat to the survival of the leatherback sea turtle species. He said the legalization of gillnets will only make it more difficult for the species to survive and thrive.

“Gillnets are simply another dangerous obstacle for this endangered species to go over in order to survive,” Ovetz said.