Turtle Advocates Plead for Swift International Action

SAN FRANCISCO, California, March 18, 2004 (ENS) - Pacific leatherback and loggerhead turtles could be extinct within 30 years unless longline fishing is banned, a coalition of conservationists and scientists warned Wednesday. The coalition is urging the international community to impose an immediate international moratorium on the industrial fishing technique, but support for the ban appears lukewarm.

Longlining is a practice in which ships extend up to 90 miles of fishing line with as many as 8,000 hooks. Some of these hooks and lines kill sea turtles, and other species such as sea birds, instead of their intended targets of fish.

The international industry sets some two billion hooks annually.

The situation is most desperate for the leatherback, a species that has been swimming the oceans for more than 100 million years. Fewer than 3,000 reproductive females remain and recent scientific studies indicate the incidental killing of the species must be reduced to zero for it to survive.

Nesting studies from around the world show that population numbers are declining rapidly. The nesting population of female leatherbacks has declined by 95 percent in the Eastern Pacific in the past two decades and is expected to go extinct within the next 10 to 30 years.

"The Pacific leatherback is just the canary in the coalmine," said Todd Steiner of Turtle Island Restoration Network.

Loggerheads too could be gone within 30 years unless a moratorium is adopted, according to the coalition, which is calling for an international ban modeled after the 1991 United Nations moratorium on driftnets. turtle

Leatherback turtles are considered endangered and are protected under the Endangered Species Act. (Photo courtesy NMFS)
Conservationists estimate as many as 40,000 sea turtles are killed as bycatch by the global longline fishing industry each year.

Industrial longlining as practiced today also threatens to wipe out whales, dolphins, sharks, seabirds and other marine species, Steiner says.

"Longline fishing for swordfish and tuna in the biologically diverse waters of the Pacific is akin to hunting deer by placing land mines in a national park," said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity. "You may catch your deer, but you invariably kill many of the neighboring species as well."

The dire prediction comes as marine conservation experts and negotiators from 16 nations gather in Bangkok to chart an international conservation course for marine turtles in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia.

But the United States, which is a signatory to that memorandum and expected by many to maintain leadership on the issue, is sending mixed signals domestically.

Last week the U.S. federal government banned commercial longline fishing for swordfish for a large area of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the West Coast. turtles

Baby leatherback turtles on the beach (Photo by Roderic Mast courtesy Conservation International)
The ban is set to take effect on April 12. It comes in the wake of an August 2003 ruling by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that found the federal government violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to analyze the impacts of the California based longline sword fishery on endangered sea turtles and sea birds.

But the ban comes as the federal government has announced it will reopen Hawaiian waters swordfish longliners on April 1.

"Opening the Hawaii fishery at this point would be a huge step backwards," said Deborah Sivas of Earthjustice, who represented conservation groups in the federal case that prompted the California ban. "The time has come for a United Nations resolution that will begin the process of ending longline fishing by all countries of the Pacific Rim."

U.S. officials see the Hawaii reopening as a compromise.

When the Hawaiian fishery reopens, longline fishers will return to fewer fishing days, federal observers on board at all times and strict limits on the number of turtles that can be snagged alive or dead - 16 in the case of leatherback turtles, 17 for loggerhead turtles.

Officials are hopeful that new fishing technologies developed by the federal government and commercial longline fishers could reduce accidental catch of loggerhead and leatherback turtles by as much as 90 percent. dehooking

Rounder hooks have proven less fatal for sea turtles and aid fishers in safely dehooking them. (Photo courtesy NMFS)
But the coalition of turtle advocates says the situation has reached a crisis point and an international ban is warranted - the Unites States accounts for only six percent of the international longline fleet.

Several other species of sea turtle are also at risk of extinction. The Kemp's ridley and hawksbill turtles are classified by the IUCN Red List as critically endangered, as is the leatherback.

The green, olive ridley and loggerhead turtles are all considered endangered. The flatback turtle, found solely on the northern coast of Australia, is regarded as data deficient.

In addition to longline fishing, sea turtles face threats from habitat loss and the poaching of turtle eggs, which some cultures regard as a delicacy.

The sea turtle population in the Northern Mariana islands is now less than 200 as the endangered animal continues to be killed for food, Radio Australia reported today.

A turtle is a delicacy among Chamorro and Carolinian people, the indigenous people of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas. They consider eating it part of their culture and way of life, although it is now a federal offense to catch sea turtles or their eggs in the Marianas.