Ruling Confirms Trump Administration’s New Interpretation of Bird Protection Law Is Wrong
HONOLULU—The National Marine Fisheries Service failed to properly analyze the Hawai‘i-based swordfish longline fishery’s impacts on the endangered loggerhead sea turtles it kills and injures before permitting an expansion of that fishery in 2012, a federal court has ruled. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals also found the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by allowing the longline fishery to kill albatrosses and other protected seabirds in the course of fishing operations.
The ruling refutes the Trump administration’s new opinion that the Act does not prohibit incidental killing of migratory birds by the energy and fishing industries. Consistent with the findings of numerous federal courts, the decision undermines the legal reasoning behind the administration’s Dec. 22 announcement that it will no longer prosecute industries that accidentally kill birds.
The ruling comes in response to a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Center for Biological Diversity, after the National Marine Fisheries Service allowed the fishery to double the number of sea turtles it hooks or entangles. Hawai‘i’s swordfish industry uses longlines up to 60 miles long, with nearly 1,000 baited hooks, that often catch endangered leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles, as well as protected migratory birds such as black-footed and Laysan albatrosses. The court found the agency improperly ignored that the Hawai’i fishery kills sea turtles that are already heading toward extinction and must now study the consequences of contributing to that problem.
The court also held that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act — one of the nation’s oldest conservation laws — does not allow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to give commercial operations like the longline fishery, which provides no conservation benefits to birds, a free pass to kill them, even accidentally. Methods to minimize such accidental bird deaths have been studied and are available, but the longline industry has refused to adopt them.
“Both the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which are supposed to be protecting our wildlife, have instead been illegally helping the longliners push them to the brink of extinction,” said Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff. “We won’t allow it. And we won’t stand by while the Trump administration turns its back on our children’s natural heritage.”
“The Hawai‘i longline fishery has gotten away with murder for years, killing and injuring seabirds, sea turtles and marine mammals, and this is only one of many court rulings trying to rein in their carnage,” said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. “This ruling is also another black eye for the Trump administration, which is trying to dismantle the very laws that protect these defenseless animals.”
Sea turtles become hooked while trying to take longline bait, or become entangled while swimming through the walls of nearly invisible lines and hooks — encounters that can drown the turtles or leave them fatally injured. Seabirds such as Laysan and black-footed albatrosses also dive for the bait and become hooked; worldwide, longline fishing has caused precipitous declines in most albatross populations.
“Sea turtles could go extinct if these deadly longlines aren’t better regulated. We’re happy to see the court reject the reckless expansion of this fishery’s lethal impact on sea turtles and seabirds,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “But it’s disappointing that the Trump administration is trying to give the energy and fishing industries a free pass to indiscriminately slaughter migratory birds.”