wordfish longline fishing may drive leatherback sea turtles to extinction

SACRAMENTO, CA -Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) has introduced Assembly Joint Resolution 62 opposing a Federal proposal to permit certain invasive types of swordfish 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 new West Coast fishing permits for swordfish until critical habitat is designated for Pacific leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles. See the resolution.Photos available on request.

“The endangered leatherback sea turtle has survived as a species for over 100 million years and is now on the verge of extinction. We cannot risk the survival of these magnificent animals by opening a swordfish fishery that has been closed over 30 years,” said Assemblyman Leno, “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 for swordfish because it involves the setting of fishing lines with thousands of hooks, across miles of ocean, and at depths where sea turtles swim. The catch using this method brings in by weight approximately 50% swordfish and 50% other fish, sharks, albatrosses, seals, dolphins, other marine mammals, and sea turtles-including the endangered leatherback sea turtle.

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 3 to 200 miles off the coast.

“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.

Injury and death from interactions with 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 sea turtle scientists. Scientists estimate that the Pacific leatherback could become extinct within 10 to 20 years if existing fishery by-catch rates of these sea turtles are not reduced.

Nevertheless, the NMFS seeks to expand the fishery with two new federal swordfish permits:

1. The first permit is nearly identical to a proposal for a swordfish fishery within 200 miles of the California coast that was rejected by the California Coastal Commission in 2007, which would take place partially in the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area established in 2001 extending 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 for sea turtle protection.

2. The second permit would establish a new high seas swordfish fishery beyond 200 miles that was closed in the past due to sea turtle captures.

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 expands the swordfish and sigh seas fisheries. It will be heard in the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee in early June.