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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Longline fishing ban lifted

 •  New, safer fish hook points to wisdom of ancient ways

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

New rules governing swordfish longline fishing in Hawaiian waters were formalized yesterday, and received the qualified endorsement of the World Wildlife Fund, which called the changes a good model for the rest of the world — if they work.

William Hogarth, assistant administrator of fisheries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, holds the type of hook used before, left, and a new one designed to cut the risk of snagging endangered turtles.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

The rule changes sorted out over three years became official with the signature of William Hogarth, assistant administrator for fisheries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Yesterday's action opens Hawai'i waters to swordfish longline fishing for the first time in three years under strict guidelines on everything from equipment to fishing limitations in order to protect endangered sea turtles.

"Undoubtedly, while some will see reopening the Hawaiian fishery as a short-term risk for the species, we consider it an essential long-term investment in sea turtle survival," said Kimberly Davis, deputy director for the Marine Conservation Program of the World Wildlife Fund.

Davis, who called the occasion "an important milestone on the path to sea turtle survival," said she hoped the changes in the Pacific would influence countries around the world to follow suit.

"But this is only a first step. Ultimately, NOAA has assured us that the Hawaiian experiment will play an important role in converting the entire longline fleet to better turtle conservation practices."

Despite the restrictions, the opening of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council's model swordfish fishery was welcomed by the Hawai'i fishing industry, which suffered financially when lucrative swordfish longlining was banned in 2001.

In fact, it was the Hawai'i Longline Association that suggested the council adopt tougher measures.

Fishermen will now be financially motivated to work for the welfare of sea turtles, said Scott Barrows, association director.

Barrows said his organization had suggested the mitigation efforts, strict limits and having fleet boats monitored 100 percent of the time by federal observers, "because we realized from the get-go the importance of limiting the number of interactions with sea turtles.

"We suggested it, and the council acted on our suggestions."

The rules now in place include restraints on the number of allowable fishing days, strict limitations on the number of interactions with sea turtles, 100 percent observer monitoring and the use of special equipment for handling and releasing turtles.

The number of "set" days for swordfish fishing will be confined to 2,120 sets — a set is one day's fishing per boat — per year. That's about half the average number of sets for all swordfish boats before the ban began in April 2001.

Longline fishers use miles of monofilament and hooks that reach depths of 50 to 1,000 feet. Because swordfish and turtles both swim in shallower depths, the risk of fishermen catching an endangered sea turtle is greater with swordfish than with tuna, which swim in deeper waters.

Important aspects of the new rules are hooks and bait intended to mitigate interaction with sea turtles.

Kitty Simonds, executive director for the Fishery Management Council, said the changes "will allow fishing for swordfish in the North Pacific by the Hawai'i fleet, and at the same time provide protection for sea turtles, particularly leatherbacks and loggerheads.

"Instead of J-hooks and squid, fishermen will be using circle hooks and mackerel bait."

Both concepts have decreased dramatically the number of loggerhead and leatherback turtles accidentally caught in Atlantic Ocean fisheries, according to Simonds.

Research experiments with circle hook and mackerel-type bait changes there have reduced leatherback captures by 67 percent, and loggerhead captures by 92 percent.

Wende Goo, NOAA Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Honolulu laboratory, said researchers know that circle hooks catch substantially fewer sea turtles, although they aren't certain why.

They speculate that it's because the hooks are too large for most turtles to swallow, said Goo. Turtles that do swallow circle hooks may escape being snagged because the points curve inward, she added.

As for the bait, Goo said researchers have noticed that sea turtles try to swallow squid bait whole, whereas with whole mackerel-type bait they tend to bite off pieces, either missing the hook or shying away from it once it's exposed.

Between 1994 and 1999, an estimated 112 leatherback turtles and 418 loggerhead turtles were accidentally snagged by Hawai'i-based longline fishing boats using traditional J-hooks.

Under the new rules, once 16 leatherback turtles or 17 loggerhead turtles have been hooked, the entire swordfish fleet will cease operations for the remainder of the year, Simonds said.

Swordfish fishing is riskier and requires costly equipment, but the financial rewards can be great, Barrows explained.

The swordfish ban hit fishers hard because they were out the cost of the extra equipment and the potential extra earnings. With added competition, the price of tuna dropped when former swordfishing boats rejoined the tuna fleet.

The price of swordfish has remained steady in Hawai'i despite warnings that it would rise when the ban was instituted in 2001. Barrows said the price in the Islands runs roughly $3.50 to $4.50 a pound, which is comparable to what it was before the ban.

Although Hogarth's signatures made swordfishing in Hawai'i legal as of April 1, officials said yesterday it would take until mid-May for the swordfish boats to get their certification papers in order and take to the water.

Federal officials point out that the U.S.-flagged boats make up only a tiny fraction of the international longline fleet

About 6,000 longline boats operate in the Pacific, most of them from Taiwan, Japan, Korea and China. The boats target mostly tuna, but also catch swordfish. Officials say they need to develop turtle-friendly gear that can be exported overseas if the turtles are to survive.

"The sooner we find out this gear works, the sooner all of the other countries will accept it," said Simonds of the Fishery Management Council.

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8038.