The California-based pelagic longline fleet fishes primarily for tuna and swordfish using monofilament lines up to 30 miles long and carrying thousands of hooks. In addition to the fish they target, these longlines are known to ensnare the critically endangered leatherback turtle, as well as loggerhead, olive ridley, and green turtles. Each year the longliners also entangle seabirds and sharks.
"The giant, Pacific leatherback is on the verge of extinction due to commercial fishing operations," explained Todd Steiner, director, Turtle Island Restoration Network. "If we don't modify our fishing activities, the ancient leatherback, which out-survived the dinosaurs, may be the first of many species to disappear forever, including the many overfished species of fish on which we depend on for food."
Scientific data shows that the leatherback sea turtle is in imminent danger of extinction in the Pacific. A recent paper in Nature (June 2000) predicts the species will go extinct in 5-10 years without reductions in adult mortality from fishing activities.
"The National Marine Fisheries Service must follow the law and consider the impacts of this fishery on protected species under the Endangered Species Act, " said Deborah Sivas of Earthjustice. "The agency should also move quickly to come into compliance with the High Seas Fishing Compliance Act of 1995 which prohibits permitting of activity that 'undermines the effectiveness of international conservation and management measures'."
In April 2001, Hawai'i federal district court Judge David A. Ezra, ordered the closure of the Hawai'i-based longline swordfish fleet and reduced fishing of the tuna fleet to reduce the longliners' impacts on threatened and endangered sea turtles. Judge Ezra had previously issued an injunction closing millions of miles of Pacific Ocean to longline fishing, noting, "the harm to the turtles is incalculable."
"Rather than comply with the Hawaiian injunction, the longliners have chosen to move their operations to California, where the can operate free of environmental review," said Brendan Cummings, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. "The time has come for the National Marine Fisheries Service to close this loophole and help save the leatherbacks from extinction."
Leatherbacks nest in Mexico and Costa Rica in the eastern Pacific, and, in the western Pacific, in Malaysia and Irian Jaya. Although in 1980 it was estimated that there were 126,000 adult female leatherbacks in the eastern Pacific alone, scientists estimate that there are less than 3,000 leatherbacks of both genders left in the eastern Pacific. The western Pacific nesting populations have also been devastated, and are near extinction.