Endangered turtles are at the center of a dispute between fishing regulators and environmentalists over how many turtles are too many to lose each year to fishermen on the hunt for swordfish in the waters off Hawaii.

Hawaii’s shallow-set longline fishery has been closed since March after fishermen accidentally caught the federal limit of 17 endangered North Pacific loggerhead sea turtles while targeting swordfish. That’s one of two species of sea turtles — the other is leatherbacks — that have shut the fishery down over the past decade when fishermen hit their caps. 

The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council has proposed new rules for both species in an effort to get fishermen back out on the water while considering the latest science. The final decision lies with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is expected to open up a public input session soon.

Loggerhead sea turtle, Caretta caretta, Picasa Creative Commons / Joseph & Farideh
Hawaii’s shallow-set longline fishery, which targets swordfish, has been closed since March after incidentally catching too many loggerhead sea turtles. Courtesy: Joseph and Farideh/Picasa Creative Commons

At the same time, Wespac is proposing to further limit the number of leatherback turtles fishermen can hook or entangle each year — from 26 now to 16. Conservationists have applauded that part of the proposal, but oppose the council’s recommendation to remove the cap on the number of loggerheads the fleet is allowed to catch.

Environmental groups say they will likely sue if NOAA approves Wespac’s measures and reduces protections for this still recovering species.

“This fishery continues to drown sea turtles, and that price is just too high,” said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network.

Lawsuits and interactions with critically endangered leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles have caused problems for the fishing industry for years. Leatherbacks have been federally protected since 1970. Loggerheads were listed as threatened throughout their range in 1978, and the North Pacific population was upgraded to endangered status in 2011.

Besides removing the cap on loggerheads and reducing the limit on leatherbacks, the council wants to impose limits on interactions with the turtles per trip per vessel — up to five loggerheads or two leatherbacks.

If a vessel reaches either limit on a trip, it would have to return to port and wait five days before it can resume fishing. Federal scientists would evaluate the vessel and turtle interactions during that time and potentially provide guidance.

If a vessel catches five loggerheads or two leatherbacks on a trip again the same calendar year, it would be prohibited from shallow-set fishing the remainder of the year. And the next year, it can only hit that limit once before it is banned the rest of the year.

Those restrictions are consistent with a new biological opinion by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. The idea is to steer fishermen away from hot spots for turtle interactions and potentially crack down on problem vessels without closing the entire fishery.

What’s frustrating Wespac, and especially the commercial fishermen, is that the same June opinion says the shallow-set fishery is not having a significant effect on the recovery of either turtle species.

Almost all the turtles are released alive, and while there hasn’t been much science on what happens after they are let go, the number of interactions with the shallow-set fishery is estimated to be too low to have much effect on the species’ overall survival.

A leatherback turtle hatchling on a beach. Courtesy: NOAA

If the fishery interacted with 21 leatherbacks and killed up to three in a year, for instance, the opinion says it would have an “inconsequential” impact on the species’ overall reproduction, numbers and distribution in the wild.

NOAA is expected to open its official review of Wespac’s recommendation any day now, which includes an opportunity for public comment before the agency finalizes it. In the meantime, fishermen and environmental groups plan to make their policy preferences clear.

Eric Kingma, executive director of the Hawaii Longline Association, which represents the shallow-set fishermen targeting swordfish and the deep-set tuna fishermen, said the Fisheries Service did get it right that the fishermen are not jeopardizing the overall recovery of these endangered turtles.

“But do the measures match the impact?” he said. “We believe no.”

The longliners strongly supported the removal of the loggerhead cap, which the council first implemented in 2004, Kingma said. But they felt the cap of 16 for leatherbacks was “overly penalizing,” given the biological opinion saying even 21 would be an acceptable level to not hurt the species’ recovery.

The Fisheries Service reduced it to 16 because that represents a 25% reduction. The regional administrator, Michael Tosatto, told the council that it must “minimize interactions with protected species,” and that means “approach zero.”

The North Pacific loggerheads remain endangered, but its population has been increasing about 2% each year, the biological opinion says.

Hawaii’s fishermen supply about half of the U.S. domestic market of swordfish, Kingma said.

Last year, when the fishery closed in May due to a lawsuit over turtle interactions, Hawaii’s shallow-set industry brought in about $1.5 million in fish, he said. It was about six times higher in 2009 when it operated the whole year.

Leina‘ala Ley, an attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, said they are reviewing the latest biological opinion and proposed rules. The removal of the hard cap for loggerheads is particularly concerning though.

“There is still opportunity for the fisheries to do the right thing in regulating the industry,” she said.

Richard WhiteCloud, founding director of the Florida-based Sea Turtle Oversight Protection, is also watching to see what happens. The group is part of a lawsuit filed in August to protect green sea turtle habitat from sea-level rise, plastic pollution and ocean warming.

“These animals were around before the dinosaurs,” he said. “But within the last 200 years of our alienesque colonial expansion of the planet we’ve nearly decimated the species. It’s time for a shift.”

Tosatto told Wespac in June that he expects a legal challenge based on the history of the fishery.

“Some will like it and some will not like it,” he said.

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