Reopening Hawaii Fishery May Harm Sea Turtles, Experts Say

April 1, 2004

The Pacific leatherback is the largest turtle in the world. The grandest specimens weigh more than a ton and span 9 feet (2.7 meters) in length. It is the deepest-diving turtle—it can descend 3,000 feet (900 meters)—and one of the few species that can dine on jellyfish. The Pacific leatherback dates back a hundred million years to the time of the dinosaurs, but within ten years humans could wipe it out.

In an effort to save both the leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) and loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta)—listed as critically endangered and endangered, respectively, by the World Conservation Union—the U.S. federal government closed a California longline fishery, prohibiting swordfishing in a large swath of the Pacific. Yesterday, however, the U.S. reopened Hawaii's longline swordfish fishery after a three-year closure.

"This is a setback for sea turtles," said Todd Steiner, director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network based in Forest Knolls, California. "There is conflicting science regarding the new hook-and-bait combination that will be required at the Hawaii fishery—opening this fishery is premature."

The closure of the California fishery is effective on April 12. The Hawaii swordfish fishery is expected to reopen in May, according to Samual Pooley, director of the Honolulu-based Pacific Islands Regional Office of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

The Hawaii swordfish fishery was originally closed in 2001 because too many turtles were caught by longline fleets between 1994 and 1999—112 leatherbacks and 418 loggerheads.

To reduce the number of turtles caught, new rules will govern the Hawaii fishery. A new type of hook and mackerel bait, rather than the traditional J-hook and squid combo, are required for all swordfishing boats. De-hooking equipment is also mandatory to limit turtle bycatch.

The amount of swordfishing has been restricted to a total of 2,120 sets per year. A set is roughly equivalent to one day of fishing on one boat. Observers will be required on every swordfishing boat. Once 16 leatherbacks or 17 loggerheads have been hooked, the fishery will close for the rest of the year.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that that this fishery will be able to promote turtle conservation—and we have hard caps [quotas] to ensure that not too many turtles are harmed," Pooley said.

Poaching and Longlines

But some scientists are not so sure.

"These species are on the verge of extinction—if you are going to open a fishery, then you must ensure there is as little impact as possible," said Roderic Mast, vice president of Washington D.C.-based Conservation International and president of the International Sea Turtle Society.

For the leatherbacks, threats abound. In many parts of Latin America turtle eggs are considered a delicacy. Along some nesting beaches 100 percent of the eggs are poached. Beachfront development, with its artificial lighting, lures turtles astray as they mistake the lights for the moon causing them to get stranded.

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