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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Decision to reopen swordfish fishery challenged in court

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

Environmental groups have gone back to federal court to challenge Hawai'i's longline swordfish industry's killing of albatrosses and sea turtles, particularly endangered leatherback turtles.

Earthjustice, representing the Turtle Island Restoration Network, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Hawaiian group Ka 'Iwa Kua Lele, filed the suit yesterday in U.S. District Court in Honolulu, saying the National Marine Fisheries Service's decision in April to reopen swordfish fishing is a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The suit said the agency reopened fishing without an adequate environmental impact statement, and it asks that the court shut down the fishery until one is completed.

However, a fishery scientist said the issues raised by the environmental groups have been addressed or are in the process of being addressed.

Paul Dalzell, senior scientist with the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, said rules on the incidental turtle catch are reasonable, and that a report on the impact to seabirds was released for public comment less than two weeks ago.

The birds can be harmed by grabbing baited hooks while longline gear is being set.

The state's longline swordfish industry has been the subject of a flurry of legal action that has kept fishing lines out of the water for most of the past four years. U.S. District Judge David Ezra in 2000 closed the fishery as a result of its impact on sea turtle stocks. Most swordfish longline fishing vessels have since left the Islands or switched their gear to concentrate on catching tuna, which are caught in deeper water where turtle bycatch is minimized.

The National Marine Fisheries Service reopened the swordfish fishery in April with a series of new restrictions, including the use of "circle" hooks with inwardly curved points that are less likely to catch turtles; a requirement that federal observers be on each swordfish fishing boat; and that the number of fishing days be cut to about half of what it was in 1999.

Just two months ago, while on a visit to Hawai'i, Bill Hogarth, assistant administrator for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, cheered the fact that the swordfish fishery was operating without lawsuit-driven restrictions.

But legal challenges have continued, here and elsewhere. Earlier this year, a federal court shut down California's swordfish longline industry because of its impact on turtles.

National Marine Fisheries Service spokeswoman Wende Goo said her agency got a copy of the Earthjustice lawsuit yesterday afternoon and was reviewing it.

Jim Cook of the Hawai'i Longline Association said his agency likely will intervene in the action to protect its interests.

Cook said reduced restrictions over the summer haven't done longliners much good, because it's a season when the swordfish are far from the Islands and the high cost of fuel in recent months has made it prohibitively expensive to go after them.

"The fish are reasonably close from February to June and again from October to December. The fishermen don't want to use up their permitted set days" until the fish are nearer to Hawai'i and the likely catch is higher, he said.

The plaintiffs in the suit argue that the fisheries service allows up to 16 leatherbacks or 17 loggerhead turtles to be caught by the fleet each year before the fishery is automatically shut down. That's too many, they said.

Dalzell, with the Western Pacific fishery council, said a thorough study by federal authorities concluded that the proposed maximum catch levels are acceptable.

Earthjustice lawyer Paul Achitoff said the fisheries service "has failed, time and again, to responsibly manage this fishery in accordance with its legal obligations. Time and again, (the service) has turned its back on protected species, the health of the oceans, and our legacy to future generations, and instead kowtows to the longline industry's demands for more fishing at any cost. We will not stand by and watch."

An environmental impact statement prepared before the fishery was opened lacked serious discussion of the impact on seabirds, notably black-footed and Laysan albatrosses, the plaintiffs said.

Again, Dalzell disagreed. He said that a supplemental environmental impact statement on seabird bycatch is near completion. A draft was released for public comment Aug. 20.

"That's being addressed," he said.

Ka 'Iwa Kua Lele member William Aila said the albatross is a form of the Hawaiian god Lono, whose return to land each fall marks the Hawaiian makahiki celebration.

"These creatures must be preserved," Aila said.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.