Today, conservation groups Turtle Island Restoration Network, Center for Biological Diversity, and KAHEA, represented by Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Honolulu, Hawai`i challenging a new federal rule allowing the Hawai’i-based longline swordfish fishery to catch nearly three times as many loggerhead sea turtles as was previously permitted. The lawsuit challenges a rule issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service on December 10, 2009, which allows the fishery to fish without any limitation on the amount of fishing it can do, except that it must stop if and when it catches the authorized number of turtles. Until now, there were limits on the number of longline sets that could be fished, as well as a lower number of turtles that could be taken. With the new rule, federal fishery managers have created an endangered turtle derby. Federal fishery managers project that the fishery will eventually expand to about three times the size it’s been for the past six years, leading to increased bycatch not only of turtles, but of marine mammals and sea birds as well.
The new rule conflicts with the Fisheries Service’s own assessment that the North Pacific loggerhead sea turtle is in danger of extinction. The Loggerhead Status Review, released only four months ago, noted that incidental capture in longline fisheries is a primary threat to the species’ continued existence.
The new regulations increase allowable capture of threatened North Pacific loggerhead sea turtles from 17 per year to 46 per year. The rule continues to allow the capture of 16 endangered Pacific leatherbacks each year, but the dramatic anticipated expansion in longlining will sharply increase the likelihood that this maximum number of leatherbacks will in fact be caught. The fishery also catches, injures, and kills false killer whales, humpback whales, albatross, blue sharks, and other “bycatch.”
“The sea turtles are swimming toward extinction, yet this plan seems intent on continuing the same old fishery policies hastening their demise,” said Teri Shore, Program Director of Turtle Island Restoration Network in Forest Knolls, CA. “We are disappointed, given Obama’s new directives to protect the oceans.” The president’s Ocean Task Force recently held hearings around the country to develop a national ocean policy, including one in Hawai`i last September.
Swordfish longline vessels 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 lines. These encounters can drown the turtle or leave it with serious wounds. Sea birds such as albatross dive for the bait and become hooked, and marine mammals, including endangered humpback whales, become hooked when they swim through the floating lines.
“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 in San Francisco. “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 law requires the Fisheries Service to minimize harm to sea turtles, and prohibits harm to albatross, both of which are being driven to extinction mainly because of irresponsible fishing practices,” said Paul Achitoff, an attorney with Earthjustice in Hawai’i. “The agency is once again pandering to WESPAC’s insatiable appetite for short-term profits, disregarding the law in favor of maximizing swordfish catch.”
“Expanding the commercial swordfish fishery in this way will have devastating consequences for the future of Hawai’i’s public trust ocean resources,” said Marti Townsend. “The Fisheries Service must manage Hawai’i’s ocean resources more responsibly for the benefit of us all.” said Marti Townsend, program director of KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance.
Watch a video
Read the complaint: Part 1 | Part 2 (PDF)