Opening Hawaii Swordfish Fishery Threatens Turtles With Extinction

Pacific Longlining Plan Based on Questionable Science
San Francisco, CA – Today, in Hawai`i, the industry-dominated Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council and NOAA Fisheries held a press conference to announce the reopening of a fishery that NOAA Fisheries had previously closed because the fishery was killing enough Pacific leatherbacks to put them on a direct path towards extinction.

The Sea Turtle Restoration Project, Earthjustice, and the Center for Biological Diversity challenge the underlying premises of the re-opening the swordfish longline fishery for Hawai`i. The conservation groups raised several questions about the science supporting the opening of the fishery that will require a different style hook and bait combination. They also predicted that the opening would delay critical conservation measures that could prevent the extinction of the Pacific leatherback sea turtle.

The technical change that is allowing the fishery to reopen is the use of off-set circle hooks and mackerel bait. It is believed that this fishery will officially reopen tomorrow.

“This decision is being driven more by politics than science. The decision to reopen the Pacific fishery is based on preliminary, unpublished data from a different ocean ecosystem,” said Todd Steiner of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. “Science plays second fiddle when it comes to fisheries conservation under the Bush Administration.”

Other specific criticisms include:
* A University of Florida researcher’s data suggests the “off-set” circle hooks are actually more lethal to turtles than circle hooks without the offsetting feature. (But the off-set is preferred by the fishers because it is easier for them to bait the hook.)
* Data from a Canada research team has found contradictory results of the advantages of circle versus “J” hooks in different years.
* A Duke University scientist believes that even if the government predicted turtle reduction mortality is realized, it will not be sufficient to allow these species to recover.

“Leatherbacks are teetering on the brink of extinction in the Pacific and the reopened fishery will push them even closer,” noted Paul Achitoff, with Earthjustice’s Hawai`i office. “A portion of the ocean that is off limits to longliners must be set aside to protect endangered sea turtles and fish stocks. That would benefit the oceans and the public.”

Because the species is so endangered, according to the plan, there will be an annual “hard limit” of 16 leatherbacks and 17 loggerheads that when reached will close the fishery for the remainder of the year.

The leatherback, the largest marine reptile, has survived more or less unchanged for 100 million years. “The leatherback is the last survivor from the age of giant reptiles,” said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity. “It survived the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, but it won’t make it through another decade of continued longline fishing.”

The groups also questioned whether the new plan would promote international conservation, as proponents claim. The groups pointed out the international opposition to the use of the $50 turtle excluder device by shrimping nations that led to a World Trade Organization dispute and a decade of stalling by shrimping nations.

“The only lesson other countries are going to take away from this plan is how to greenwash extinction,” added Steiner. “The idea that the U.S. is just going to be able to export this questionable technical fix is naïve. Only an international ban on longlining will completely solve the problem. By reopening the Hawai`i longline fishery, the US is backpedaling on its commitment to save sea turtles.”

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