Deadly Longline Hooks Snag Sea Turtles, Whales, Sea Birds and Sharks

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 the National Marine Fisheries Service’s issuance on December 10, 2009 of a rule removing all limits on effort in the Hawai’i-based longline swordfish fishery, and allowing the fleet to catch nearly three times as many loggerhead sea turtles as was previously permitted. Read the complaint. The new rule conflicts with the Fisheries Service’s own assessment that the North Pacific loggerhead sea turtle is in danger of extinction. (Loggerhead Status Review.) That report, 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. 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.

“The US government is going to allow even more sea turtles to be injured and killed to provide US consumers with swordfish, a product that is tainted with high levels of mercury. This is what we experienced and learned to expect from the Bush Administration, but we ‘hoped’ for something better from the Obama administration. It appears the fishing industry is still calling the shots when it comes to protecting oceans and human health,” said Todd Steiner, biologist and Executive Director of Turtle Island Restoration Network.
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.

Overview of the new regulation:

The “preferred” or weakest alternative was chosen.

Sea turtle “take” meaning hooking, both harmed and killed:

New rule: Loggerheads 46; Old rule: 17 (more than 3 times as many)

Leatherbacks, 16, (both new and old rule – no change)

Sets: New rule: No limit. Old rule: 2,120 (each set is one longline going out into the ocean; so each is NOT a permit; The 2,120 was spread out among all the permit holders). Note: The proposal to eliminate the set limit is odd, since fishermen have never come close to meeting it since the fishery re-opened in 2004. Last year 2008, 1,587 sets were recorded, and 1,570 the year before in 2007.

Number of hooks “could increase to historic levels of 4,000 to 5,000 sets per year (3.4 to 4.2 million hooks/yr).”

Number of Vessels: About 30 under old rule, probably about the same with new rule. But “some increased participation in the shallow-set fishery is anticipated with fishermen from the Hawaii-based deep-set tuna fishery moving into the fishery as a result of quotas being established for bigeye tuna. Entry into the Hawaii longline fishery, including both shallow (swordfish)- and deep-set (tuna) techniques, would remain limited to 164 vessels.”

Earthjustice is a nonprofit, public-interest, environmental law firm. The Mid-Pacific office opened in Honolulu in 1988 and has represented dozens of environmental, native Hawaiian, and community organizations. Earthjustice is the only nonprofit environmental law firm in Hawai’i and the Mid-Pacific, and does not charge clients for its services.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 200,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Turtle Island Restoration Network is a nonprofit environmental organization committed to the study, protection, enhancement, conservation, and preservation of the marine environment and the wildlife that lives within it. TIRN has approximately 10,000 members, many of whom reside in the state of Hawai’i, and has offices in the United States, Costa Rica, and Papua New Guinea.

KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance is a community-based organization working to improve the quality of life for Hawai’i’s people and future generations through the revitalization and protection of Hawai’i’s unique natural and cultural resources. We advocate for the proper stewardship of our resources and for social responsibility by promoting multi-cultural understanding and environmental justice.