New longline fishery would harm endangered sea turtles as well as whales and seabirds

West Coast fishery managers meeting in Seattle today approved a permit to allow a limited longline fishery targeting swordfish in protected sea turtle habitat off the California and Oregon coasts. The same proposal, which was broadly opposed by scientists, environmental organizations, the recreational fishing community and members of the public, was unanimously rejected last year by the California Coastal Commission.

The Pacific Fisheries Management Council is recommending that a new longline fishing permit be granted in West Coast waters for 2008 and/or 2009 during the height of leatherback sea turtle activity in coastal waters during the fall.

The permit applicant is fisherman Peter Dupuy of Ocean Pacific Seafood of Tarzana, CA – a member of the fishery council’s advisory panel on highly migratory species.

Today five council members out of 20 voted against the controversial longlining permit: Marija Vojkovich, Dan Wolford, Michele Culver, Mark Cedergreen and Dale Meyer. Last month, only three of 20 council members, from California and Oregon, opposed moving the permit to the next step. The National Marine Fisheries Service needs to issue the permit and is on record supporting it, even though agency scientists have found the area provides vital foraging habitat for endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles.

The permit would allow 67,000 large fishing hooks to be set just below the surface on miles of fishing line from 50 to 200 miles off the coast. The permit would also authorize the incidental capture and killing of endangered leatherback sea turtles, albatross and whales. This could open the door for more longline fishing, a method that has been banned by the State of California for over 30 years, due to its high capture and killing of non-targeted species.

The longlining would occur in the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area (Conservation Area), which was designated in 2001 by NMFS to protect endangered leatherback sea turtles. The Conservation Area extends from the waters off of Monterey, CA to the mid-Oregon coast and is closed to drift gillnet vessels from August 15-November 15 of each year.

Populations of endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles have plummeted by 95 percent in the past two decades due to accidental capture and death as bycatch in commercial longline fisheries for swordfish and tuna and poaching of eggs and sea turtles at nesting beaches.

In 1998, the Recovery Plan for the U. S. Pacific Populations of the Leatherback Turtle said that “the waters off the West Coast of the United States may represent some of the most important foraging habitat in the entire world for the leatherback turtle.”