Story updated at 1 p.m., 5/11/2018

A federal court order to protect endangered loggerhead sea turtles has forced the National Marine Fisheries Service to immediately close the shallow-set longline fishery in Hawaii for the rest of the year.

A 2012 lawsuit filed by the Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Center for Biological Diversity, represented by the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice, was rejected in a Hawaii district court but they eventually won a split decision on appeal in December.

The parties reached an agreement Friday to settle the case. It included an immediate shutdown of the shallow-set longline fishery, which targets swordfish. NMFS implemented the closure Thursday.

Loggerhead sea turtle, Caretta caretta, Picasa Creative Commons / Joseph & Farideh
A lawsuit to protect endangered loggerhead sea turtles has led to the temporary closure of Hawaii’s shallow-set longline fishery, which targets swordfish. Courtesy: Joseph and Farideh/Picasa Creative Commons

“The National Marine Fisheries Service, which is supposed to be protecting our wildlife, has instead been illegally helping the longliners push sea turtles to the brink of extinction,” Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff said in a news release. “We won’t allow it.”

In 2012, NMFS issued a biological opinion that found no adverse effect on certain endangered species from the longline fishery. In deciding to expand the fishery, NMFS allowed the longliners to hook or entangle twice as many endangered turtles — up to 26 leatherbacks and 34 loggerheads each year.

The environmental nonprofits challenged the opinion, which led to an appeals court finding that NMFS was “arbitrary and capricious in its no-jeopardy determination for North Pacific loggerhead turtles.”

Federal scientists will work on a new biological opinion during the closure.

“We scored a victory for loggerhead sea turtles,” Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network, said in the release. “For decades the Hawaii longline fishery has gotten away with killing and injuring sea turtles, seabirds and marine mammals. A healthy ocean belongs to all of us and shouldn’t be threatened by a small group of industrial fishing vessels.”

Michael Tosatto, NMFS regional administrator, said in a statement that the agency is “disappointed with the Court’s ruling on loggerheads because all available information shows that the population is experiencing strong recovery, and the shallow set fishery continues to have a negligible impact on loggerhead abundance.”

He noted that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision was split, 2-1, and that while it reversed a District Court judge’s decision affirming NMFS’ no-jeopardy finding for North Pacific loggerhead sea turtles, it affirmed all other NMFS findings in the biological opinion.

Messages were left with the Hawaii Longline Association and the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, which makes fishery management recommendations to NMFS.

Update Wespac officials said in a news release Friday afternoon that the sworfish fishery’s closure underscores the successes of sea turtle management. The fishery has reached 33 of its 34 allowed loggerhead sea turtle interactions for the year and was closed until Jan. 1 as part of the settlement agreement.

New measures, such as the use of circle hooks and mackerel bait, have reduced the number of turtle interactions by 93 percent since they were implemented in the early 2000s. The industry also has 100 percent observer coverage, meaning an independent person is aboard the boats to monitor compliance.

“The record of 99 percent live releases, only two mortalities in 24 years and increasing loggerhead
abundance over the past two decades underscore the management success of the Hawaii shallow-set
longline fishery,” Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds said.

Wespac has valued Hawaii’s longline fishery in excess of $300 million when retail markets and support industries are factored. Hawaii longliners provide half of the U.S. domestic swordfish, according to Wespac.

The U.S. has a fleet of roughly 145 longline boats in the Pacific, predominantly based in Honolulu. Most target bigeye tuna, or ahi, for the fresh sashimi markets. But about 30 vessels go after swordfish, which is popular for grilling, according to the nonprofit Hawaii Seafood Council.

The swordfish season begins in January and the majority of the catch is landed by May, according to HSF.

Miyoko Sakashita, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said more needs to be done to permanently address the harm caused by longliners in the Pacific.

“For a few months, sea turtles will get a respite from millions of deadly hooks,” she said in the release.

Read the federal order below.

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