A coalition of conservation organizations and scientists has called on the United Nations to take immediate steps to save Pacific leatherback and loggerhead turtles that face an imminent threat of extinction. The groups say that it is now time for an international ban on longline fishing modeled after the 1991 UN High Seas Driftnet Moratorium. Several factors contribute to making this moment a pivotal one for saving these two species of sea turtles. Most important, scientists agree that without dramatic, coordinated, international action both species will be extinct within 30 years. Two, the American government, under pressure from lawsuits brought by the some of the groups making this appeal to the UN, is finally taking some initiative on the turtles' behalf by closing the California-based longline fishery, a major contributor to the turtles' decline. Three, on the negative side, the same federal agency is about to reopen the Hawai'i-based long-line fishery. Finally, US-based fishing fleets are only a small part of the problem. Broad-based international cooperation is necessary, thus the appeal to the UN.
"A global effort is critical to saving the Pacific leatherback from extinction," said Todd Steiner of Turtle Island Restoration Network. "The Pacific leatherback is just the canary in the coalmine. Unless we impose a moratorium on industrial longlining as it is practiced today, sea turtles, whales, dolphins, sea birds, sharks, billfish, and sea lions will be wiped out, along with many important fisheries."
California Longline Ban Supported, Hawai'i Opening Opposed
On March 11, 2004, NOAA-Fisheries issued a new rule banning California longline fishing targeting swordfish from a huge swath of the Pacific Ocean. The final rule comes on the heels of an August 2003 decision by the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concurring with environmentalists that the Fisheries Service had failed to conduct the proper environmental review before issuing permits to the fishery. NOAA-Fisheries' plan to reopen Hawai'i waters to swordfish longlines in April, however, would undermine efforts to save the species.
"Banning California-based longlining closes a significant loophole. The United States is now taking the lead to end this rapacious fishing practice and set a standard for the world. Opening the Hawai'i fishery at this point would be a huge step backwards," said Deborah Sivas of Earthjustice, who represented the coalition before the Ninth Circuit. "The time has come for a United Nations resolution that will begin the process of ending longline fishing by all countries of the Pacific Rim."
Specifically, the new rules prohibit vessels that land their catch in California from setting shallow swordfish longlines in California state waters or on the high seas in the Pacific Ocean east of 150º W. longitude to protect endangered leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles. This type of longlining has been banned for all US longline vessels landing in Hawai'i, but NOAA-Fisheries has proposed reopening the Hawai'i fishery in April.
"Longline fishing for swordfish and tuna in the biologically diverse waters of the Pacific is akin to hunting deer by placing land mines in a national park," said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity. "You may catch your deer, but you invariably kill many of the neighboring species as well."
Saving the sea turtle will require international action because the US fleet makes up only a small percentage of the longline fleet.
The Pacific's Oldest Residents in Jeopardy
The Pacific populations of leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles are in dire straits. Marine biologists estimate that if the current rate of decline continues the Pacific leatherback, which outlived the dinosaurs, will be extinct in the next 10 to 30 years. Swift and decisive action on behalf of both national and international leaders is needed to slow the nosedive towards extinction. Recent scientific studies recommend that the incidental killing of leatherback turtles must be reduced to zero if the species is to survive.
Several years ago, scientists began reporting that populations of Pacific leatherback sea turtles were crashing. In 2002, scientists from around the world held a conference in Monterey, California, to discuss the crisis.
Nesting studies from around the world show that population numbers are declining rapidly. The nesting population of female leatherbacks has declined by 95 percent in the Eastern Pacific (Nature 6/2000) in the past two decades and is expected to go extinct within the next 10 to 30 years.
As an outcome of the meeting, more than 400 scientists and 100 non-governmental organizations from more than 40 nations have since called on the United Nations to place a moratorium on longlining in the Pacific to protect sea turtles, sharks, seabirds, and other species. View the scientist letter here.
Longlines, a Destructive Form of Industrial Fishing
Longline fishing, an industrial technology that can set thousands of baited hooks in a single set, and that internationally sets 1.4 billion hooks per year (or 4 million hooks/day), has been implicated in a recent study published in Nature as a major cause of the decline of large fishes, such as swordfish, tuna, and sharks. Previous scientific studies have also indicated that this fishing method is driving Pacific leatherbacks turtles to extinction, as well as being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of endangered seabirds each year.
Dr. Larry Crowder presented a paper at the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences meeting in February 2004 that showed that nearly half of all loggerhead and leatherbacks turtles are likely to be caught on a longline hook every year. The study estimates that 30,000 loggerheads and 20,000 leatherbacks are entangled in the Pacific per year, and up to 6,000 loggerheads and 3,200 leatherbacks are killed by longlines in the Pacific annually. Biologists say the leatherback could become extinct in 10 to 30 years if current trends continue. Sea turtles, sharks, whales, dolphins, marlin, seabirds, and other endangered species also get caught on the hooks. Read the study here.
The United States makes up only about 5 percent of the global swordfish fishing fleet. Japan, Korea, and Taiwan all have large fleets. The US, Japan, and the European Union are the largest importers of swordfish.
The longline industry is decimating not only turtle populations, but also undermining communities and ecotourism operations around the world have committed to turtle conservation. Developing nations such as Mexico and Costa Rica have invested considerable sums to protect turtle populations and nesting beaches. Sadly, all those efforts are undone when longliners catch and kill sea turtles on the open seas.
Since 1999, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network, represented by Earthjustice, have filed a series of lawsuits to protect the leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles from the US longline fleet. The US Endangered Species Act protects the leatherback and loggerhead sea turtle.
A 1999 lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of Turtle Island Restoration Network and The Ocean Conservancy temporarily closed millions of square miles of territorial waters around Hawai'i to longliners; the injunction was later modified to close the swordfish portion of the fleet and to limit the tuna longline fleet. The US district court judge found that NOAA-Fisheries was not doing enough to enforce protections for sea turtles dying on the longlines. When about two dozen Hawai'i longliners relocated to California waters to exploit a loophole in the ruling, the two organizations responded with another lawsuit seeking an injunction to close it.
In March 2002, NOAA-Fisheries declared that the Hawai'i-based longline fishery was placing leatherback, loggerhead, and green turtles at risk of extinction and completely banned swordfish longlining out of Hawai'i.
In August 2003, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the fisheries service had violated the Endangered Species Act by allowing longline fishers to continue operating along the West Coast before assessing the ecological impacts of such fishing activity.
Todd Steiner, Turtle Island Restoration Network, 415-488-0370 x103
Deborah Sivas, Earthjustice Stanford 650-723-0325
Paul Achitoff, Earthjustice Hawai`i 808-599-2436
Brendan Cummings, Center for Biological Diversity 909-659-6053 x301
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.