Today, two environmental organizations, in an effort to prevent the extinction of leatherback sea turtles in the Pacific, filed a legal motion to close the California-based longline fishery.
In August, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the NOAA Fisheries (formerly NMFS), a federal agency charged with managing the nation's fisheries, violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to analyze the impacts on endangered sea turtles and sea birds of the California-based longline fishery for swordfish. Today, Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Center for Biological Diversity, the two environmental organizations, represented by Earthjustice Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford are requesting a temporary restraining order and a permanent injunction from the United States District Court, Northern District of California.
If the motion is successful, it will halt all California-based longline fishing activity and prevent the killing of critically endangered sea turtles and other species, while the NOAA Fisheries makes a final determination on the impact of this fishery.
The California-based longline fishery grew rapidly over the past four-years after previous litigation by Turtle Island Restoration Network shut down the Hawaii-based longline fishery for swordfish in November 1999. Approximately three dozen longline vessels relocated from Hawai'i to southern California.
"These fishermen are acting like pirates," said Todd Steiner of Turtle Island Restoration Network. "Rather than figuring out a more sustainable way of fishing, they make us chase them through the courts to close the loopholes."
The California longline fleet, based largely out of San Pedro, fishes primarily for swordfish using nearly invisible monofilament lines up to 60 miles long and carrying thousands of baited 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 sea turtles. Each year the longliners also entangle numerous marine mammals, hundreds of seabirds such as albatross, and thousands of sharks.
"This fishery is pushing the giant, Pacific leatherback to the brink of extinction," said Brendan Cummings, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "The time has finally come for this illegal and highly destructive fishery to be closed."
Turtle Island Restoration Network, along with more than 100 environmental and sportfishing organizations and more than 400 leading scientists from 50 nations, has called upon the United Nations to ban longlining in the Pacific to prevent the extinction of the leatherback sea turtle and numerous species of albatross.
Scientific data show that the leatherback sea turtle is in imminent danger of extinction in the Pacific. A scientific report published in Nature (June 2000) predicts the species will go extinct in 10 to 30 years without reductions in adult mortality from fishing activities. 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 fewer than 3,000 total leatherbacks left in the eastern Pacific. The western Pacific nesting populations have also been devastated, and are near extinction.
Longlining has also been implicated in the demise of the giant fishes it pursues. In May 2003, another study published in Nature demonstrated a 90 percent decline in large predatory fish, due primarily to longline fishing. Scientists estimate that pelagic longlining in the Pacific, by all the world's fleets, each year catch, 3.7 million sharks, 422,000 marlin, 41,500 sea turtles, 5,000-14,000 black-footed albatross, 2,000 dolphins and 1,500 whales. Many, if not most, of these animals are killed or injured in the process.
"NOAA Fisheries must consider the impacts of California longliners on protected species under the Endangered Species Act," said Deborah Sivas of the Earthjustice Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford, attorney for the environmental organizations. "The agency's failure to consider the impacts of this fishing gear is undermining the effectiveness of international conservation and management measures, and setting a bad example for the rest of the world."
The lawsuit was the first ever regarding the High Seas Fishing Compliance Act, a statute that requires U.S. fishermen to comply with international treaties when fishing on the high seas.