Swordfish longline fishing could drive leatherback sea turtles to extinction

SACRAMENTO, CA – The California Legislature today adopted Assemblyman Mark Leno’s Assembly Joint Resolution (AJR) 62 opposing federal proposals to permit swordfish longline fishing in vital sea turtle habitat off the California coast. The resolution specifically requests that the National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS)- the federal agency responsible for managing the nation’s fisheries-deny or delay consideration of new West Coast fishing permits for swordfish until critical habitat is designated for the Pacific leatherback and ongoing studies determine if the Pacific loggerhead should be up-listed from “threatened” to “endangered” are completed.

“The endangered leatherback sea turtle has survived as a species for over 100 million years and is now on the verge of extinction,” said Assemblyman Leno (D-San Francisco). “We cannot risk the survival of these magnificent animals by opening a swordfish fishery that has been closed over 30 years. These rare sea turtles swim clear across the Pacific to reach California waters and it’s our duty to make sure they find safe harbor here.”

Leno’s resolution opposes longline fishing in shallow waters – a method that involves setting fishing lines that stretch for miles and contain thousands of hooks. The catch, using this method, brings in approximately 50 percent swordfish and 50 percent other fish, sharks, albatrosses, seals, dolphins, other marine mammals, and sea turtles-including the endangered leatherback sea turtle.

“Every leatherback sea turtle we lose to fishing lines could be the last straw for a species that survived the extinction of the dinosaurs,” said Michael Milne, leatherback campaigner for Sea Turtle Restoration Project. “The feds are pushing to open deadly longline fisheries for swordfish that have never been allowed within 200 miles of California’s shores-just like their never-ending attempts to drill for oil along our coastal waters.”

AJR 62 was co-authored by Senator Patricia Wiggins (D-Santa Rosa) and Assemblymembers Patty Berg (D-Eureka), Evans (D-Santa Rosa), Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), Dave Jones (D-Sacramento), and Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara), and was sponsored by the Sea Turtle Restoration Project and supported by a coalition of environmental organizations including Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Earth, and Seaflow.

Leatherback sea turtles feast on jellyfish along California’s coast after a 6,000-mile swim from their nesting beaches in Indonesia. Because of past regulations, commercial longline fisheries have never been established within the West Coast Exclusive Economic Zone -the part of the ocean that is from three to 200 miles off the coast.

Injury and death from shallow-set longline fishing gear targeting swordfish is a direct contributor to the rapid decline and the potential extinction of Pacific Leatherback and North Pacific Loggerhead sea turtles, according to scientists. Scientists estimate that the Pacific leatherback could become extinct within 10 to 20 years if existing fishery by-catch rates are not reduced.

Leno’s resolution urges that consideration of petitions to establish critical habitat in West Coast waters for endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles and threatened loggerhead sea turtles be completed before the NMFS considers expanding the swordfish and sigh seas fisheries.