Court Orders Closure of Swordfish Fishery to Protect Loggerhead Turtles

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The National Marine Fisheries Service closed the Hawai`i shallow-set longline fishery for the rest of the year on May 8 in accordance with a settlement agreement and federal court order stemming from a 2012 lawsuit brought by the Turtle Island Restoration Network and Center for Biological Diversity to protect sea turtles and seabirds.

The groups, represented by Earthjustice, challenged the agency’s decision to increase the fishery’s annual loggerhead and leatherback sea turtle interaction limits, as well the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s granting of a seabird interaction permit.

In a 2-1 decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found in December that NMFS’s biological opinion underpinning the loggerhead take limit of 34 a year was arbitrary and capricious, as was the FWS permit.

Shortly after the court issued a mandate implementing its decision, NMFS Pacific Island Regional Office administrator Michael Tosatto defended his agency’s position. “The best scientific information continues to show that the North Pacific loggerhead sea turtle population is experiencing strong population growth and we are prepared to address the deficiencies identified by the majority’s decision,” he told Environment Hawai`i.

But rather than choosing to fight the decision, NMFS and the Hawai`i Longline Association chose to settle the matter. As of early April, the fishery was already one loggerhead interaction away from closing for the rest of the year under the now-invalid limit of 34.

Under the agreement, NMFS must, as soon as practicable, create rules reverting the annual loggerhead take limit to 17, which is what it was before the 2012 increase. The agreement also prohibits the agency from raising it above 17 without issuing a new biological opinion first.

“We scored a victory for loggerhead sea turtles,” said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network in a press 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,” he said.

(For more information, see our April 2018 cover story and sidebar.)

— Teresa Dawson

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