HONOLULU, Hawaii, December 16, 2009 (ENS) – Three conservation groups are taking the National Marine Fisheries Service to federal court in Honolulu to challenge a new rule removing all limits on fishing effort in the Hawaii-based longline swordfish fishery. The groups contend that the rule allows the longline fleet to catch nearly three times as many endangered sea turtles as previously permitted.
KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network are challenging the rule based on the Fisheries Service’s own assessment that the North Pacific loggerhead sea turtle is in danger of extinction.
That report, released four months ago, observed that incidental capture in longline fisheries is a primary threat to the species’ existence.
“The law requires the Fisheries Service to minimize harm to sea turtles, and prohibits harm to albatross, both of which are being driven to extinction mainly because of irresponsible fishing practices,” said Paul Achitoff, an attorney with the Hawaii office of Earthjustice, a public interest law firm representing the conservation groups in this case.
Achitoff says the lure of short-term profits for the fishing industry is behind the new rule, which takes effect January 11, 2010.
“Expanding the commercial swordfish fishery in this way will have devastating consequences for the future of Hawaii’s public trust ocean resources,” said Marti Townsend, program director of KAHEA, a group that brings environmentalists together with native Hawaiians. “The Fisheries Service must manage Hawaii’s ocean resources more responsibly for the benefit of us all.”
The final rule removes the annual limit on the number of fishing gear deployments for the Hawaii based pelagic shallow-set longline fishery, and increases the annual number of allowable incidental interactions that occur between the fishery and loggerhead sea turtles.
Under this final rule, the Hawaii longline fleet may not hook or entangle more than 46 loggerhead sea turtles or 16 leatherback sea turtles each year. The Fisheries Service says that “the affected populations of Pacific sea turtles will not be jeopardized under this action.”
“The sea turtles are swimming toward extinction, yet this plan seems intent on continuing the same old fishery policies hastening their demise,” said Teri Shore, program director of Turtle Island Restoration Network in Forest Knolls, California. “We are disappointed, given Obama’s new directives to protect the oceans.”
The new Ocean Task Force established by President Barack Obama recently held hearings around the country to develop a national ocean policy, including one in Hawaii in September.
“These sea turtle interaction limits do not represent the upper limit of interactions that would avoid jeopardizing the continued existence of sea turtles, but are the annual number of sea turtle interactions anticipated to occur in the Hawaii shallow-set fishery,” the Service states. “The interaction limits allow for growth of the fishery without appreciably reducing the likelihood of both the survival and recovery of the loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles.”
But the conservation groups contend that the fishery also catches, injures, and kills false killer whales, humpback whales, albatross, blue sharks, and other non-target species.
Swordfish longline vessels trail up to 60 miles of fishing line suspended in the water with floats, with as many as a thousand 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 wounded.
Sea birds such as albatross dive for the bait and become hooked, and marine mammals, including endangered humpback whales, become hooked when they swim through the floating lines.
“The Fisheries Service has admitted that loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles in the Pacific face a significant risk of extinction unless we reduce the number of turtles killed by commercial fisheries,” said Andrea Treece, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco.
“Unfortunately, rather than take action to better protect sea turtles, the agency is proposing measures that would actually increase the number of turtles killed,” said Treece.
The Fisheries Service maintains in its Federal Registry filing, “The final rule is not likely to cause significant adverse effects to marine mammals, migratory birds, essential fish habitat, or habitat areas of particular concern.”