Longline fishing boats hunting swordfish trail up to 60 miles of fishing line suspended in the water with floats, with as many as 1,000 baited hooks set at regular intervals. Sea turtles get hooked while trying to take bait or become entangled while swimming through the nearly invisible lines—encounters that can drown the turtles or saddle them with serious injuries. Seabirds also dive for the bait and become hooked; worldwide, longline fishing has caused serious declines in most albatross populations.
In 2012, conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit in federal district court challenging a new rule by the National Marine Fisheries Service that doubles the number of endangered sea turtles that can legally be killed by Hawaiʻi’s longline swordfish fishery. The suit also challenges a permit issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service that allows the fishery to catch Laysan and black-footed albatrosses without requiring the mitigation method the Service has acknowledged could save these increasingly rare birds.
The new federal rule, opposed by conservation groups, rolled back the significant protections that had been gained through a 2011 settlement between the same parties that capped the number of sea turtles that could be caught by the fishery to 17 endangered loggerheads and 16 critically endangered leatherbacks. The new rule allows the fishery to kill 34 loggerheads and 26 leatherbacks. Longline fishing is one of the biggest threats to the survival of these sea turtles.