A fisheries rule change seeks to preserve ‘ahi stocks but may put sea turtles at risk.
Joan Conrow
Jul 22, 2009

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Hawaii’s swordfish fleet is again riding rough seas, this time whipped up by a new proposal to expand the fishery.
The rule change, proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service at the recommendation of the Western Pacific Fisheries Management Council (Wespac), calls for eliminating the limit of 2,120 sets (fishing gear deployments) annually. Instead, fishermen would be allowed to catch swordfish until they reach a cap determined by how many times they hook or entangle endangered sea turtles.
The goal is to encourage longline fishermen to switch from big eye tuna, which is “a distressed stock,” to swordfish, “a relatively healthy stock that can stand more harvest,” said Bill Robinson, regional administrator of the NMFS Pacific Islands region.
But critics say the proposal will push loggerhead and leatherback turtles closer to extinction and result in an unacceptably large “by-catch”-non-target animals that get caught in the millions of hooks and miles of line deployed by the approximately 30 vessels in Hawaii’s swordfish fishery.
“Every swordfish you eat literally comes with a side helping of sea turtles, whales, dolphins and seabirds,” said Teri Shore of the Turtle Island Restoration Network.
Under the rule change, the fishery would be allowed to nearly triple its interactions with loggerheads from the present cap of 17 to 46. NMFS rejected a Wespac proposal to increase leatherback interactions from the current 16 to 19.
The proposal is based on “much better information about by-catch” gleaned from having observers aboard every swordfish boat since 2004, Robinson said. He also noted that new studies in “delayed mortality” indicate that with 17 to 46 interactions, “the number of adult turtles killed is around three,” so an increased number of interactions isn’t expected to result in a higher mortality rate.
Shore said loggerhead and leatherback populations are too vulnerable to risk any increased mortality. “Every sea turtle that we lose right now has serious consequences for the future survival of the species,” she said. “These sea turtles have been around since the time of the dinosaurs, but their numbers have dropped recently and rapidly. Evidence shows longline fishing is the primary cause of their decline.”
There’s always a catch
The impact of longline fishing on endangered turtles has been the focus of litigation since 1991. A federal judge ultimately ordered NMFS to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement that found longlining was, indeed, jeopardizing several species of turtles and NMFS voluntarily closed the fishery.
Meanwhile, the Atlantic longline fishery began experimenting with methods to reduce the by-catch of turtles and seabirds, including switching from J-hooks to circle hooks, using mackerel for bait rather than squid, dying bait blue and refining the fishing process, including setting lines off the sides of a boat, rather than the stern.
The Hawaii swordfish fishery reopened in 2004 with some of these measures in place, as well as a requirement for 100 percent observer coverage on all boats, a fishing effort capped at 2,120 sets and a turtle interaction limit of 17 loggerheads or 16 leatherbacks. Reaching any of those limits would trigger the fishery’s closure.
Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff, who has sued NMFS over turtle interactions on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island Restoration Network and KAHEA, said the proposal to eliminate the set limit is odd, since fishermen have never come close to meeting it since the fishery re-opened. Last year, 1,587 sets were recorded, and 1,570 the year before.
“They’re almost asking the Fisheries Service for an allocation of turtles, rather an allowable catch, which is the case with most fisheries,” Achitoff said. “Here they’re saying, ‘let us fish as much as we want and catch as much as we want,’ which is, at a minimum, an unusual state of affairs.”
The answer may lie in another by-catch species: sharks. Hawaiian longliners have historically hooked two to 10 sharks for every swordfish. At least 60,000 sharks-and more often around 100,000-are caught each year by swordfish crews, who often cut off the fins from live animals and then allow them to slide off the deck and drown.
It’s an extremely lucrative trade, with unprocessed shark fins selling for $17 per pound in 2006. While state law prohibits fishing boats from landing in Hawaii with fins that aren’t attached to sharks, and federal law sets very strict limits on possessing fins in U.S. waters, the law doesn’t prevent other boats from collecting the fins from fishing vessels far out at sea. A bill closing that loophole was recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and is awaiting action by the Senate.
Conservationists say that expanding the swordfish fishery will result in higher kills of seabirds and marine mammals, including false killer whales. Earthjustice filed suit against NMFS earlier this year, contending that longlining was resulting in an unsustainable number of killer whale deaths. Robinson acknowledged one killer whale was killed last year, another this year.
Humpback whales are another concern. Some 23 humpback entanglements were reported between 2001 and 2006, although such interactions are “most often not fatal,” Robinson said.
“If this proposal goes forward, Fisheries is estimating a humpback will be killed every year, and that’s not including the less serious injuries, like infections, that aren’t immediately fatal but can result in problems,” Achitoff said.
Robinson said that “a huge amount of effort has gone into scientific studies and regulations to reduce by-catch,” and as a result, turtle interactions have been reduced by 85 to 90 percent and the seabird by-catch by 95 percent. NMFS also has provided grant money to help fishing boats make the conversion to side-setting, which has proved effective in dramatically reducing seabird catches, but not all vessels are designed to allow such a change, he said.
Unintended consequences
“It’s an emotional issue,” Robinson said. “There are environmental groups that object to any by-catch. The Hawaii longline fishery is the most highly regulated in the world. If the U.S. longline fishery got shut down, foreign boats would take it up and none of those boats have any by-catch restrictions on them. So you would end up trading a fishery with very little by-catch for a fishery with a very high by-catch.”
Further, he said, “we have championed our regulatory regime in the international community,” prompting the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission to last year require the use of circle hooks by longliners.
But conservations say that far from being a model, NMFS has adopted regulations and innovations like the circle hook only under the pressure of litigation. What’s more, they say, there’s no credible evidence that the swordfish fishery has been unduly hampered by regulations, since it has not used the number of sets it is allowed.
“The bottom line is always profits and money,” Shore said. “Unfortunately, that’s what’s driven our oceans to being absolutely devastated. It all stems from this outmoded model of go out and over catch.”
The public can comment on the proposed rule change through Aug. 3 via the federal e-rulemaking portal at [www.regulations.gov]. Or visit [www.seaturtles.org].