Today three environmental groups filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Hawai’i to halt an experimental swordfish longline fishery that is authorized to kill 117 threatened and endangered sea turtles. The Center for Biological Diversity, The Ocean Conservancy and the Sea Turtle Restoration Project of Turtle Island Restoration Network, represented by Earthjustice, filed suit to stop this so-called “experiment,” as it allows longline fishing in the very area from which the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) previously banned longlining to protect the turtles.
The vessel operators will be allowed to sell their catch and retain the profit, and will be granted a permit to kill threatened and critically endangered sea turtles. NMFS’ own mortality estimates state the proposed experiment will kill up to 15 critically endangered leatherback turtles, 87 loggerheads, and six green turtles, further propelling these species toward extinction.
“NMFS is trying to create a loophole to allow swordfish fishing to continue, even after its own scientists have warned that the so-called experiment is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the turtles,” said Paul Achitoff, Earthjustice attorney for the plaintiffs.
The suit alleges that the NMFS decision to grant a permit to itself to conduct the experimental fishery contradicts the scientific conclusions in the agency’s own Biological Opinion that the expected mortalities are likely to jeopardize the very existence of loggerheads and leatherbacks. The suit seeks to halt the experiment until NMFS complies with the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Marydele Donnelly, Sea Turtle Research Scientist for The Ocean Conservancy, commented, “Although leatherbacks and loggerheads are on the brink of extinction in the Pacific, NMFS’ experiments are sacrificing these animals relentlessly. Atlantic research has shown that blue-dyed bait and hooks placed away from the floats do not deter sea turtles from taking bait or getting hooked. NMFS’ Pacific experiment is uselessly duplicating this research, adding to our belief that the experiments in Hawai’i are simply a cover for swordfish fishing.”
Gear used in the pelagic longline fisheries generally consists of a main monofilament line buoyed by surface floats. The main line, which is 30 to 40 miles long, supports hundreds of branch lines, and the entire “set” carries as many as 2,000 baited hooks. These hooks and lines capture and entangle endangered turtles. While some turtles may survive this ordeal, many are strangled by the monofilament lines or drown soon after swallowing the hooks. Others may die weeks or months later from starvation, internal injuries, or bacterial infections.
Brendan Cummings, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said, “The government has been aware of this problem for more than fifteen years, and has failed, time and again, to require the fishery to take any measures to stop — or even reduce — the killing. Once we finally get relief for these besieged turtles, the government turns around and tries to reopen the fishery. Rarely have we seen such a clear attempt by NMFS to circumvent the Endangered Species Act, which is designed to protect and recover species, not kill them.”
The 2001-02 nesting season for Pacific leatherbacks was the worst year ever, with minimal numbers of females returning to nesting beaches throughout the world. “The decline in the Pacific leatherback population in the last five years is nothing short of catastrophic,” said Todd Steiner, Director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. “Their future depends on what we do — or may not do — in the next five years. Allowing a closed swordfish fishery to re-open under a so-called experimental permit is ludicrous in light of the overwhelming evidence that we must immediately stop all assaults on this critically endangered species if we expect to recover the species.”