Fishing Council Relaxes Turtle Limits, NMFS to Initiate New Biological Opinion

posted in: August 2008 | 0

How close is too close to quasi-extinction?

It’s a subjective question, Melissa Snover told the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council at its June meeting. But in light of the council’s recent recommendation to lift the effort limits on Hawai‘i’s shallow-set fishery, Snover, a scientist with the Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Turtle Assessment Program, tried to answer that question by assessing the impacts of potential increases in interactions between the shallow-set longline fishery, commonly known as the swordfish fishery, and rare loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles.

Using turtle nesting data from Jamursba- Medi in Indonesia, Costa Rica, and Japan, as well as data on post-interaction mortality, Snover determined how likely turtle popula- tions from those areas are to see a 50 percent reduction in nesting females within three generations. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, such a reduction would be an indication that a population is “vulnerable.”

Snover found that an annual loss of more than one adult female Costa Rican leather- back would result in “excessive increases in SQE (susceptibility to quasi-extinction).” For the Jamursba-Medi leatherbacks, fewer than four, and ideally fewer than two, adult female deaths a year would have a minimal impact on SQE. Finally, for the Japanese logger- heads, fewer than seven, and ideally fewer than three, adult female deaths would have a minimal SQE impact.

“These numbers are small and may seem to suggest that this method is overly conserva- tive, however these populations are all small and declining and the allowable fatal interac- tions from them should reflect their status,” she wrote.

While Snover’s results were given in terms of adult female mortalities (AFM), most turtles taken by the fishery are juveniles. So, using sex ratios, reproductive values, and mortality rates, Snover determined that an interaction or take level of 46 loggerheads would result in about three AFM, and 19 leatherback interac- tions would result, again, in about three AFM.

Snover said genetic data indicates that 94 percent of the leatherbacks that interact with the Hawai‘i longline fleet are from the West- ern Pacific with the remaining six percent from the Eastern Pacific. Most are from Jamursba-Medi, while a few are from Costa

Rica. All of the loggerheads that interact with the Hawai‘i fishery are from Japan. While all are at risk of quasi-extinction, she said, her assessment indicates that there is no signifi- cant difference between the current allowed levels of takes for the two species and the increased levels the council was considering.

Even so, she warned that her analysis incorrectly assumes that the trends at nesting beaches are representative of the total popu- lation trends. For that reason, she notes in her assessment that “caution needs to be applied in interpreting these results.”

Her report states that since 1997, logger- head nesting abundances in Japan have been increasing, but the two most recent years of data suggest a substantial decline. While two years isn’t long enough to make any real inferences, she writes, “[T]he mortalities of juveniles off the Baja peninsula of Mexico are well documented and these mortality levels are relatively recent. The current declining numbers in the Japanese loggerhead trends may simply be the start of another [historic] cycle, however it may also be that the reduc- tion of the juveniles in Baja is just now being manifested in the nesting beach data and the population could be declining at a much more rapid rate than the analyses here represent. Considerations of extenuating circumstances such as these should be accounted for when determining acceptable interaction levels.”

Despite her warnings, the majority of the council felt her assessment represented the best available science and narrowly voted (5-4- 1) to make a final recommendation that the National Marine Fisheries Service raise its annual hard cap on interactions with logger- heads from 17 to 46 and the one for leather- backs from 16 to 19.

Now that the council has voted, the NMFS’ Pacific Islands Regional Office will prepare a biological opinion to assess the impact of raising the turtle take limit, to comply with Section 7 of the federal Endangered Species Act. If the NMFS finds that the proposal will not jeopardize the turtles’ survival, it will likely promulgate rules in accordance with the council’s recommendation. PIRO’s Lance Smith told the council that he could not speculate on whether or not there will be a jeopardy finding. He only said that Snover’s SQE analysis will be considered as his office tries to determine the effects turtle mortalities will have on each population and on each of the two species as a whole.

Bad Timing

According to Center for Biological Diversity attorney Andrea Treece and Ocean Conser- vancy manager Meghan Jeans, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Adminis- trative Procedure Act should have prevented the council from taking final action on its proposed swordfishery rule amendments.

In a June 13 letter to council executive director Kitty Simonds, they argued that because the NMFS had not released a draft supplemental environmental impact state- ment for public review, the council’s votes of support for new swordfishing rules violate “the most basic purposes” of those acts.

NEPA, they wrote, is meant to ensure that agencies have detailed environmental impact information before a decision is made, and guarantee that the information is made available to the public that “may play a role in the decision-making process.” The act requires environmental information, such as a draft EIS, be disseminated “early enough so that it can serve practically as an important contribution to the decision-making process and will not be used to rationalize or justify decisions already made,” they wrote. The APA, they continued, requires the council to “give interested persons an opportunity to participate in the rule making.”

Treece and Jeans concluded that until a draft SEIS is made available to the public and public comments have been considered, the council must refrain from selecting a preferred alternative or taking final action with regard to modifying shallow-set fishery effort levels, turtle take hard caps, or other requirements.

In her June 14 response, Simonds called their statements “willfully inaccurate” and a “misguided attempt to impugn this council’s record on sea turtle conservation and man- agement.” She explained that final action by the council is being required by the NMFS before the initiation of the ESA’s biological opinion process. She added that while the timelines of NEPA, APA and the Magnuson- Stevens Act (which governs council actions) may be confusing, her staff had informed Jeans on June 13 about the rule-making process, before their letter was sent.

Simonds also pointed out that the NMFS is the “agency” in this case, and since NEPA documents are agency documents, “council staff cannot release the DSEIS to the public to initiate formal public review until NMFS has approved the document for public release.”

She wrote that she expected a draft SEIS to be available for public review by mid-August and that the council would consider all public comments made during the 45-day comment period.

“If substantive comments are provided by the public that bring forth relevant infor- mation that would warrant reconsideration of proposed management modifications for the Hawai‘i shallow-set longline fishery, the council will consider modifying its recommendations at its October 2008 meeting, as appropriate,” she wrote.

Simonds also wrote that the confusion over NEPA, APA, and MSA timelines has led Congress to direct the NMFS to develop new environmental review procedures and that the NMFS has already issued a proposed rule on them.

When council member and state Department of Land and Natural Resources director Laura Thielen asked about the conservancy’s letter at a June 16 standing committee meeting, PIRO director William Robinson re- sponded that ideally the NEPA process would have been completed before the council took final action. Even so, Robinson said he did not believe there was any legal requirement to have done that and that the NEPA process will be completed before the NMFS takes any action.



Native Communities To Advise on Resources


On the last day of the council’s June meeting, when most of the big items had been heard and most members of the public had gone elsewhere, the council approved a directive that sounds nearly identical to what the state’s newly created ‘aha kiole advisory committee is supposed to help do. Under Act 212 of the 2007 Legislature, the committee is supposed to lay the groundwork for the creation of an island- based advisory council, called ‘aha moku, to recommend to state agencies the best way to manage local resources in accordance with indigenous methods.

So far, however, Governor Linda Lingle has refused to release funds for the committee’s work. That, combined with the state’s strict procurement process, has stymied the committee’s attempts to fulfill its mission.

Earlier in the course of the council’s three-day June meeting, ‘aha kiole committee member Charles Kapua gave a presentation on the committee’s mission and its troubles. He explained how the Ho‘ohanohano I Na Kupuna Puwalu series of 2006 and 2007, funded mainly by the council, had led to the drafting and passage of Act 212. For many of the participants in the Puwalu series, the act seemed like a victory.

But that victory was short lived, by Kapua’s account. He complained to the council about the lack of funding and how the committee’s eight members had spent $1,700 of their own money trying to meet their mandate. He said that the committee had held 61 community meetings and three committee meetings – all at the expense of its members.

“How can we be successful without money?” he asked the council.

Department of Land and Natural Re- sources director and council member Laura Thielen tried to explain why things haven’t panned out as expected. She said that usu- ally, non-profit groups would receive a grant-in-aid from the Legislature. (While the ‘aha kiole was, in fact, established by the state, Thielen seems to view the committee as a citizen organization.)

“I don’t know why, but the money [for the committee] came through our depart- ment,” she said, adding that the committee’s request that its $220,000 legislative appro- priation be used to pay for a salaried em- ployee ran into problems with the state’s procurement process.

She also pointed out that the committee was not the only state entity that has been denied its funding. Her department’s entire budget was cut by more than four percent this year, and its parks and administration divi- sion budgets were cut by 20 percent, according to Thielen.

Thielen admitted, “It’s been difficult for them as a citizen organization.” But when Kapua said committee members did not know how to secure their own funding since “we’re coming off the street,” Thielen fired back, saying that her staff had met with the committee to explain various state rules and budget requirements. She had even sent the committee a letter encouraging it to stop spending money because the funds had not been released.

For the record, she said, “Our staff has been working with the committee this whole time.” On the last day of the council’s June meeting, with no prior public discussion, the council decided to “develop a community cultural consultation process throughout the region for the native communities to inform resource managers on the best practices for traditional resource development.” While the process is strikingly similar to the ‘aha moku council anticipated in Act 212, council media specialist Sylvia Spalding told Environment Hawai‘i that she did not think the measure was intended as a way to pay the ‘aha kiole committee. That is the state’s responsibility, she said. Spalding was not able to explain by press time why the council recommended the measure and whether the council planned to create its own ‘aha moku-type system.

Teresa Dawson

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