Hawai’i federal district court Judge David A. Ezra has ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”), and Secretary of Commerce William Daley violated the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) by allowing the Hawai’i-based longline fishery to operate without first preparing an Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement.
The lawsuit was filed last February by the Sea Turtle Restoration Project of Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Center for Marine Conservation, represented by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. Anticipating the court’s ruling, the defendants recently announced that they would prepare an EIS assessing the environmental impacts of the fishery, but argued that the fishery should be allowed to continue to operate without change during the two years required to prepare the EIS.
Noting that the longline fishery catches hundreds of threatened and endangered sea turtles, Judge Ezra in his opinion issued October 18 held that “the harm to the turtles is incalculable,” and “a carefully tailored injunction during the EIS preparation period is warranted.” Given the complexity of the case, the court has allowed the parties the opportunity to discuss appropriate terms of the injunction before drafting his final order on that issue.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Paul Achitoff, commented: “We’re pleased that the court is putting the brakes on a fishery that has been operating in disregard of environmental laws and killing endangered turtles on a regular basis. NEPA demands that, before these kinds of actions are allowed, federal agencies examine their environmental impacts and disclose them to the public, so it’s appropriate that an injunction be in place while the defendants go back and do the evaluations they should have done in the first place.”
The Hawai’i-based pelagic longline fishery consists of over 100 vessels that fish 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 catch the critically endangered leatherback turtle, as well as loggerhead, olive ridley, and green turtles. Each year the longliners also catch thousands of seabirds, such as albatross, and tens of thousands of sharks, most of which are finned before their carcasses are discarded overboard.
Both plaintiffs pointed out the urgent need for change in the longline fishery. “We don’t want to jeopardize leatherback sea turtles by maintaining the status quo in this fishery,” said Pam Plotkin of CMC. “Leatherbacks have declined significantly in the Pacific Ocean and there may not be any remaining in the near future if we don’t act now.”
Peter Fugazzotto, Sea Turtle Restoration Project’s associate director, said: “While we are encouraged by the court’s ruling, if we are going to prevent the leatherback sea turtle from going extinct, we are going to have to change the way the longliners fish. We need to have drastic reductions in the killing of sea turtles by this fishery, either through immediate government action or widespread public outcry.”