By Jeff Barnard

The Associated Press

GRANTS PASS, Ore. - Reversing course, federal regulators have decided not to let California's drift gillnet fleet back into West Coast waters frequented by endangered leatherback sea turtles.

Based on new scientific reports, NOAA Fisheries Service, the federal agency that overseas commercial fisheries, has denied a special permit to allow boats that deploy long nets floating beneath the surface to catch swordfish and thresher shark in a reserve set up in 2000 off Oregon and California for leatherbacks.

Mark Helvey, NOAA Fisheries Service assistant southwest regional administrator for sustainable fisheries, said new reports indicate the area is a critical feeding ground for leatherbacks, and there was no evidence that suspending the nets 36 feet below the surface to protect whales and seal lions also protects sea turtles.

The decision is not likely to affect supplies of swordfish and thresher shark in the U.S., Helvey said. Most of the fish comes from overseas, and restrictions on the U.S. fishery remain the way they have been since 2000.

The reserve bars gillnets from Point Conception in Southern California to Cape Falcon in northern Oregon from Aug. 15 through Nov. 15, when a group of leatherbacks born on a single beach in Indonesia are foraging for jellyfish in the area. It was created after NOAA Fisheries looked at the drift gillnet fishery and decided it jeopardized the survival of endangered leatherbacks.

The decision was a victory for conservation groups that had been fighting the permit authorized by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which sets West Coast ocean fishing seasons.

andquot;It's huge,andquot; said Ben Enticknap of Oceana. andquot;Drift gillnets are banned on the high seas, but we continue to allow them in coastal waters off California and Oregon. Maintaining the leatherback conservation area is the least (NOAA Fisheries) can do.andquot;

It was a blow for the gillnet fleet of about 50 boats based in Southern California, which has been working to regain access to the bulk of their traditional fishing grounds at the time of year when fishing for swordfish and shark is most productive, said Chuck Janisse, director of the Federation of Independent Seafood Harvesters.

There are no hard numbers on how many leatherbacks exist around the world, or off the West Coast. But scientists have observed an average of 178 a year close to shore off California, said NOAA Fisheries scientist Scott Benson. All those turtles were born on one beach in Indonesia and are part of a Western Pacific population estimated at 3,000 to 5,000 turtles that disperses widely to feed.