Hawai’i federal district court Judge David A. Ezra today ordered thousands of square miles of the Pacific Ocean closed to the Hawai’i-based longline fishery to reduce the longliners’ impacts on threatened and endangered sea turtles. The closure, which extends north of 28 degrees north latitude, east of 168 degrees west longitude, and west of 150 degrees west longitude, becomes effective within 30 days from today, and will remain in effect until an Environmental Impact Statement analyzing the fishery’s impacts is complete.
“For once we are taking a precautionary approach while we look for a permanent solution,” said Pam Plotkin, the Center for Marine Conservation’s Senior Conservation Scientist. “The judge’s decision may help save Pacific leatherback sea turtles from extinction.”
Todd Steiner, director of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, said, “This is exactly the action we needed to start us on a solid path to saving the critically endangered leatherback sea turtles. Commercial fishing activities must be conducted responsibly to protect marine biodiversity and eliminate the wasteful killing of these magnificent animals. Judge Ezra has ordered a temporary closure while additional research is conducted. Ultimately, we may need to create permanent marine protected areas, where fishing is not allowed, to ensure the survival of this ancient species.”
The Sea Turtle Restoration Project and the Center for Marine Conservation, represented by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, had filed suit in February against the National Marine Fisheries Service and related government agencies challenging their failure to properly manage the longline fishery and comply with federal environmental laws. Judge Ezra had concluded, in an order issued October 18, 1999, that the government had violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to prepare an EIS for the longline fishery, and that a “carefully tailored” injunction was appropriate while the EIS process was ongoing. At that time, Judge Ezra requested briefs from the parties on how to craft an injunction that would balance the needs of the endangered species with the concerns of the longline industry, which intervened in the suit.
The Court’s decision today was based on scientific data showing that the leatherback turtle is in imminent danger of extinction in the Pacific, and that the great majority of leatherbacks (as well as loggerhead turtles) caught by the Hawai’i-based longliners are hooked by the largest longline vessels fishing for swordfish hundreds of miles north of the main Hawaiian islands. These vessels also account for much of the shark finning that occurs in the longline fishery, as well as the deaths each year of thousands of albatross that are hooked on longlines
Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff commented: “Judge Ezra’s order was compelled by the National Marine Fisheries Service’s persistent refusal to take any effective measures to save these endangered turtles from extinction. NMFS has stood by for years and watched as leatherback populations have plummeted. An Environmental Impact Statement will finally expose the devastation being caused by the longline fishery. This injunction increases the chance that there will still be leatherbacks left in the Pacific by the time the EIS is finished.”
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 also have been devastated, and are near extinction.