Seattle –Following close on the heels of a decision to close the California and Oregon salmon fishery, last week west coast fishery managers approved opening a new longline fishery for swordfish in vital sea turtle habitat off the California and Oregon coasts. The same proposal, which faced widespread opposition, was defeated last year by the California Coastal Commission.

The Council’s decision is the first step in a process to open waters off the California coast to longline fishing where it has been banned for over 30 years in U.S. waters, because of the risk it poses to threatened and endangered sea turtles.

While those Council members in favor of the proposal were largely members of the commercial fishing industry, opponents included the states of California and Oregon as well representatives of the public and the recreational fishing sector. The new fishery must still secure final approval from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and be subject to further review by the California Coastal Commission should they decide to intervene once again on this decision.

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.

“We don’t need to eat swordfish so bad that rare leatherbacks should be sacrificed and maybe disappear forever,” said Teri Shore of Turtle Island Restoration Network, “No one supports this except for one fisherman and his friends on the fishery council.”

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.

“Opening the leatherback’s vital foraging grounds to longline fishing makes no sense,” said Andrea Treece, Staff Attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “For a critically endangered leatherback sea turtle, it makes no difference whether it drowns in a gillnet or on a longline. The point is to prevent it from drowning at all.”

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

Populations of endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles have plummeted by 95 percent in the past two decades due to accidental capture and death as bycatch in commercial longline fisheries and poaching of eggs and sea turtles at nesting beaches.

“Sea turtles face a gauntlet of threats at every stage of their life cycle and survival to adulthood is a rare event,” noted Meghan Jeans of Ocean Conservancy. “To approve this permit and add one more threat, one more hurdle that turtles must overcome, would be a huge step backward in our efforts to put these critically endangered species on the path towards recovery,”