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Federal Appeals Court Upholds Limits on Sea Turtle Deaths in Hawai`i’s Longline Fishery

Honolulu, HI — The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision yesterday that upheld a federal district court settlement limiting the number of loggerhead and critically endangered leatherback sea turtles that can be caught by Hawai`i’s longline swordfish fishery. These sea turtles come from the same populations that feed and migrate along the U.S. West Coast..

The settlement responded to a lawsuit brought by Turtle Island Restoration Network (aka SeaTurtles.org), Center for Biological Diversity and KAHEA challenging the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) decision in 2009 to nearly triple the number of loggerhead sea turtles the fishery could catch.

The settlement rolled back the limit to prior levels. The decision rejected an appeal by the fishing industry, which sought to invalidate the agreement.

Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff said, “We’re glad the federal appeals court upheld the temporary sea turtle protections we won with the consent decree, but the high level of sea turtle harm NMFS is now proposing may well be worse than the previous rule. NMFS seems to be raising the limits to accommodate the longliners rather than to ensure that the species aren’t driven to extinction, as the law requires.”

“Sea turtles are becoming more endangered, not less, so each one we lose in the longline fishery pushes them closer to extinction,” said Teri Shore, Program Director at SeaTurtles.org in California. “Allowing more sea turtles to be harmed in this high-bycatch fishery makes a mockery out of so-called sustainable seafood being touted by the seafood industry.”

While the appeal was pending, NMFS in September 2011 changed the loggerheads’ designation to “endangered.” In January of this year, the agency also issued a new biological opinion as contemplated by the consent decree. That document proposes to increase the number of endangered loggerhead sea turtles the longliners can catch from 17 to 34. It also increases the limit for catching endangered leatherback sea turtles from 16 to 26. Notably, in 2011 the fishery was forced to close after it caught its limit of leatherbacks.

In related actions, NMFS also wants to expand longlining along the U.S. West Coast and in American Samoa despite exceedances of endangered sea turtle take and violations of the Endangered Species Act. Read more here.

SeaTurtles.org, Center for Biological Diversity and KAHEA sued the National Marine Fisheries Service over its decision to increase, from 17 to 46, the number of loggerhead sea turtles the fishery could catch in a year before being required to shut down. At the same time, NMFS was considering increasing protections for loggerheads under the Endangered Species Act by upgrading it from “threatened” to “endangered.”

The plaintiffs and NMFS agreed to settle the case by rolling back the number of loggerheads allowed to be caught to 17 while the agency decided whether to uplist the species and prepared a new analysis of the effects of increasing the turtle catch limit on the species’ survival and eventual recovery. Judge David Ezra approved the settlement as a consent decree.

In its appeal, the fishing industry argued that the court lacked the power to issue the consent decree. The appeals court rejected this argument, noting that the consent decree simply offered the sea turtles some protection by reinstating the previous catch limit, while allowing the agency an opportunity to reconsider its position in light of the latest scientific information.

“Our settlement ensures that sea turtles can swim more freely and safely in Hawai`i’s waters,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “If loggerheads and leatherbacks are going to survive, we need to stop killing them in our fisheries.”

“Hawai`i’s public-trust ocean resources have to be better managed for our collective best interest, and not just the interests of this commercial fishery,” said KAHEA Board President Kealoha Pisciotta. “The 9th Circuit decision is a victory not just for the turtles, but for Hawai`i’s people who rely on a healthy, functioning ocean ecosystem. We can’t rest as long as federal fishery managers continue to allow unacceptable levels of harm to the few sea turtles remaining in the ocean.”

Swordfish longline vessels trail up to 60 miles of fishing line suspended in the water with floats, with as many as 1,000 baited hooks deployed at regular intervals. Sea turtles become hooked while trying to take bait or become entangled while swimming through the nearly invisible lines. These encounters can drown the turtles or leave them with serious injuries. Sea birds such as albatross dive for the bait and become hooked; marine mammals, including endangered humpback whales and false killer whales, also sometimes become hooked when they swim through the floating lines.

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Turtle Island Restoration Network (aka Sea Turtles.org) 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 35,000 members, many of whom reside in the state of Hawai‘i, and has offices in the California, Texas and Costa Rica..

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.

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.