Fewer rare sea turtles will die on the swordfish industry's longlines in Hawaii under an agreement between environmental groups and the government. The agreement settles a lawsuit challenging the federal government's plans that would have dramatically increase the number of turtles that could be killed. The Turtle Island Restoration Network, Center for Biological Diversity and KAHEA sued the National Marine Fisheries Service for allowing 46 imperiled Pacific loggerhead turtles to be hooked last year. The new court-ordered settlement caps the number at 17 per year. Meanwhile the National Marine Fisheries Service is weighing whether loggerheads need more protection under the Endangered Species Act.
"It made absolutely no sense to have one arm of the National Marine Fisheries Service increasing the lethal capture of loggerheads, while the other arm is in the process of determining whether loggerheads should be uplisted from threatened to endangered," said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. "With extinction looming, these animals need more protection, not less."
"With this decision, Hawaii's public-trust ocean resources can be better managed for our collective best interest, and not just the interests of this commercial fishery," said KAHEA program director Marti Townsend. "This is a victory not just for the turtles, but for Hawaii's people who rely on a healthy, functioning ocean ecosystem."
Conservation groups represented by Earthjustice filed a federal lawsuit challenging a 2009 rule allowing the swordfish fleet to catch nearly three times as many loggerhead sea turtles as previously permitted. This settlement freezes the number at the previous cap of 17 while the government conducts additional environmental studies and decides whether or not to classify the loggerhead as endangered, rather than its current, less-protective status of threatened. For leatherback turtles, the bycatch limit remains at 16 per year. In 2010, eight Pacific leatherbacks and seven loggerheads were caught in the longline fishery, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. There have already been 4 loggerheads captured in 2011, which has sea turtle conservationists concerned.
"Sea turtles have been swimming the oceans since the time of dinosaurs. But without a change in management, they won't survive our voracious quest for swordfish and tuna," said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "If loggerheads are going to survive in the North Pacific, we need to stop killing them in our fisheries."
"Pacific loggerhead sea turtles are nearly extinct, so this bycatch rollback helps right a serious wrong," said Teri Shore, program director at Turtle Island Restoration Network. "We can't allow these rare sea turtles to disappear for a plate of swordfish. It's tragic that it took a lawsuit to correct this fishery problem."
Swordfish longline vessels trail up to 60 miles of fishing line suspended in the water with floats, with as many as 1,000 baited hooks deployed at regular intervals. Sea turtles become hooked while trying to take bait or become entangled while swimming through the nearly invisible lines. These encounters can drown the turtles or leave them with serious injuries. Sea birds such as albatross dive for the bait and become hooked; marine mammals, including endangered humpback whales and false killer whales, also sometimes become hooked when they swim through the floating lines.