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Federal Agency’s Plan to Supersede California’s Historical Ban on Longlines Jeopardizes Endangered Sea Turtles

Click here to see a copy of the Federal Register Notice

Long Beach –The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)—the federal agency responsible for managing the nation’s fisheries—announced today that they are moving forward with a plan to open a new longline fishery for swordfish in vital sea turtle habitat off the California and Oregon coasts.

The same proposal, which faces widespread opposition from environmental, sport fishing, and small-scale commercial fishing organizations, would rollback historical bans on longline fishing off the U.S. West Coast.  The states of California and Oregon have already voted to oppose the proposal at the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The proposed swordfish fishery is harbinger of an increasingly pro-industry climate and is one of three proposals to expand longline fishing on the West Coast and in U.S. Pacific.  Because of past regulations, commercial longline fisheries have never been established within the West Coast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)—the part of the ocean from 3 to 200 miles off the coast.  This longline proposal is intended to determine whether a large commercial longline fishery is economically viable in the EEZ.

“This permit spits in the face of historic fishery policy, the goals of the California Costal Act, and the public’s strong desire to protect marine wildlife, including endangered sea turtles,” said Mike Milne of Turtle Island Restoration Network.  “It would introduce longlining into a part of the ocean previously spared the well-known disastrous effects of this industrial fishing practice.”

NMFS’ decision signals agency support for the opening of waters off the California coast to longline fishing where it has been banned for over 30 years due to the risk it poses to threatened and endangered sea turtles, depleted fish stocks, and marine biodiversity.  Long before jurisdiction over commercial fisheries on the US West Coast was transferred to the federal government, the California Fish and Game Commission unanimously and unequivocally banned the destructive fishing practice from its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)—the part of the ocean from 3 to 200 miles off the coast.

The permit applicant requests authority to deploy up to 67,000 large fishing hooks to be set just below the surface on miles of fishing line within 50 and 200 miles of the coast. The applicant also seeks authorization to incidentally capture and possibly kill endangered leatherback sea turtles, albatross and marine mammals including pilot whales, sperm whales, and Steller sea lions.

The new longline fishery would take place partially in the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area. Designated in 2001 by NMFS to protect endangered leatherback sea turtles, the conservation area extends from the waters off Monterey, CA to the mid-Oregon coast and is closed to drift gillnet vessels from August 15-November 15 of each year – the time of year when leatherbacks feast on jellyfish after a 6,000-mile swim from their nesting beaches in Indonesia.

In 1998, the Recovery Plan for the U. S. Pacific Populations of the Leatherback Turtle said, “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.”

Public comments are due by May 27, 2008.