Conservation groups are condemning a proposal by the federal National Marine Fisheries Service to allow the Hawai'i longline swordfish fishery to injure and kill nearly three times as many endangered sea turtles as currently permitted, despite scientific evidence that the sea turtle populations are in danger of extinction.
"The Fisheries Service has admitted that loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles in the Pacific face a significant risk of extinction unless we reduce the number of turtles killed by commercial fisheries," said Andrea Treece, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Unfortunately, rather than take action to better protect sea turtles, the agency is proposing measures that would actually increase the number of turtles killed."
The Hawai’i longline swordfish fishery regularly captures, injures, and kills loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles, both of which are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. Current limits on the fishery designed to protect sea turtles, themselves inadequate, were put in place in 2004 following litigation by conservation groups.
The Fisheries Service is proposing to remove all limits on how much fishing the swordfish fishery can do, and to expand the allowable "take" of loggerhead sea turtles from 17 per year to 46 per year. Take of 16 leatherbacks would be allowed each year under the new rules.
"The Endangered Species Act requires the Fisheries Service to minimize take of sea turtles," said Paul Achitoff, an attorney with Earthjustice in Hawai’i. "The agency is disregarding that requirement and instead seeking only to maximize fishing for swordfish."
Scientific analyses have revealed that, without greater protection, both the loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles could be functionally extinct in the Pacific within a matter of decades. In addition to drowning in nets and longlines from industrial fisheries, the turtles face threats on their nesting beaches, including the loss of those beaches from sea level rise resulting from global warming.
"The sea turtles are swimming toward extinction, yet this plan seems intent on continuing the same old Bush-era policies hastening their demise, instead of changing course and offering hope for these ancient and gentle species," said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. "With the threat of climate change looming, the turtles need greater protection, not less."
Swordfish longliners trail up to 60 miles of fishing line suspended in the water with floats, with as many as a thousand baited hooks deployed at regular intervals. Sea turtles become hooked while trying to take bait or entangled while swimming through the nearly invisible fishing lines. These encounters can leave the turtle with serious wounds and physiological stress and, if the turtle is not brought to the surface in time, can drown the turtle. The fishery also captures other non-target species such as sea birds, marine mammals, and sharks.
"Allowing longline fishing for swordfish in the rich waters off Hawai’i is like allowing landmines to be used for deer hunting in national parks," said Marti Townsend, program director of KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance. "You may catch what you are after, but the collateral damage to other wildlife is simply unacceptable."
The Fisheries Service is accepting public comment on the proposal for 45 days.