The environmental law firm Earthjustice is fighting a federal rule that would double the number of rare leatherback and loggerhead turtles that can be killed by the Hawaii-based longline swordfish fishery.
“The fisheries haven’t been applying more pressure, just the same, steady approach of ‘let us fish as much as possible until the last fish is gone,’” according to an email from Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff. He has sued the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) about six times in the past 12 years to protect turtles.
“We are aware of the lawsuit and will coordinate the agency’s response with the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Interior,” wrote Wende Goo, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokeswoman, in an email.
The new rule, which allows the fishery to kill 34 loggerheads and 26 leatherbacks per year, rolled back protections achieved in the settlement of a 2011 lawsuit. “The loggerheads were uplisted from ‘threatened’ to ‘endangered’ only a year ago,” Achitoff wrote. “Both [species] have declined precipitously over the past few decades, due in significant part to longline fishing. NMFS doesn’t dispute that both species face poor long-term prospects, but values the fishery’s pats on the back more than either the law or the survival of any endangered wildlife. This pattern is nothing new.”
Swordfish boats trail up to 60 miles of fishing line suspended in the water with floats, with as many as 1,000 baited hooks deployed at regular intervals, according to Earthjustice. Seabirds, which dive for the bait, get entangled in the line and drown. The lawsuit also challenges a recent Fish and Wildlife Service permit that allows the fishery to catch Laysan and black-footed albatrosses. Though federal agencies acknowledge that long-liners can effectively avoid seabird catch by setting lines off the sides of their boats, the practice is not required, Achitoff wrote. “As a result, almost none of the swordfish longline vessels employ it.”
The most recent challenge was filed in federal district court on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network.