Ruling on longline fishing poses mixed blessing
By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer
A federal judge's ruling has lifted swordfishing restrictions on Hawai'i's beleaguered longline fishing fleet, but with the unintended consequence of also removing protection from prosecution if the boats accidentally hook endangered turtles.
The fishing industry, regulators, scientists and environmental groups are scrambling to sort out the mess by asking the District of Columbia judge to temporarily reinstate restrictions and protections, while calling for emergency regulations that will allow the industry to expand its fishing somewhat for the next six months to a year. By that time, they hope to have permanent regulations in place.
There are 105 longline boats operating out of Hawai'i but they are under strict regulations that effectively shut down longlining for swordfish, leaving them fishing primarily for tuna.
The judge's ruling lifts all restrictions on the longline fishery, but leaves the door wide open for prosecution if even a single sea turtle is hooked along with any catch.
Longliners "are immediately at risk at this time," said Jim Cook, co-owner of the fishery supply firm Pacific Ocean Producers and legal liaison to the Hawaii Longline Association.
The industry appealed yesterday to the judge to temporarily reinstate regulations and protections that were lifted two weeks ago, and on Tuesday the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council urged the National Marine Fisheries Service to establish emergency rules to protect the longline boats and to let them start fishing for swordfish for the first time in two years.
The longline industry has been strictly regulated because longline hooks catch not only the targeted fish, but also turtles, sharks and even sea birds, some of which are protected by federal law.
Longline fishing for tuna, in which hooks are set in deep water where they are less likely to catch turtles, has been allowed to continue. Swordfish hooks are set shallower and have a tendency to also hook endangered turtles. As a result, swordfish longlining has essentially been halted in Hawaiian waters resulting in a drop in the fishing fleet's revenues from $55 million to $35 million a year, Cook said.
The endangered species issue is critical to the fishing industry right now because a U.S. District Court judge in the District of Columbia has ruled that existing Hawai'i fishing regulations are based on a biological opinion in which procedural errors were made as it was developed. Those regulations have limits on fishing as well as allowances for fishing crews.
Under the regulations, crews can "take" which can mean injure or kill a certain number of turtles without being prosecuted under the federal Endangered Species Act. The judge's ruling lifts the swordfishing and other longlining regulations, which by itself would be good news for the industry, but it also means Endangered Species Act protection is gone.
The Hawaii Longline Association, which took the case to the District of Columbia court, joined other agencies yesterday in asking that court to temporarily reinstate the vacated regulations so fishing at least for tuna can continue.
Some environmental groups feel longline fishing in any form is such a threat to turtle stocks that it should be banned outright. Fishing groups say they hope they can find ways to reduce the turtle take and to keep fishing. That's the basis of the emergency regulations proposed by the Western Pacific fishery council.
The proposed regulations would allow swordfish fishing using mackerel instead of squid for bait and a "circle" hook instead of a J-shaped hook. Both the replacement bait and hook have reduced the turtle take in the Atlantic.
The regulations would establish a fishing boat lottery and cut the fishing pressure to 75 percent of its level in 1994-98. And they would establish a limit on the number of turtle interactions. If the number of hooked turtles reached that limit, all swordfish fishing would halt.
"I don't believe NMFS is going to implement these emergency rules, and if they did, my clients would most likely sue and would likely win," said Paul Achitoff, the Earthjustice lawyer who represents The Ocean Conservancy and the Turtle Island Restoration Network.
"What is being proposed would jeopardize the turtle species," including the leatherback, loggerhead and other species, he said. Achitoff said longline gear also threatens the stocks of the tuna and swordfish that are targeted, as well as non-target species that get hooked, like sharks and albatrosses.
The National Marine Fisheries Service will review the proposed emergency rules, but even if it found them justified, it would take at least a month and a half to enact them, said Sam Pooley, acting administrator for the NMFS Pacific Islands Regional Office.
"We'll have to see what we can do to preserve the turtles and preserve the fishery both," Pooley said.
In a related issue, the Western Pacific council voted to establish an advisory committee, with both fishing industry and environmental organization membership, to develop a long-term management scheme for the longline industry.
Reach Jan TenBruggencate at email@example.com or (808) 245-3074.