blame fed agency
The Marine Fisheries
Service is at fault, not
longliners, they say
Inouye brokers $7 million forBy Peter Wagner
observers, environmental study
They closed a turtle slaughterhouse in Mexico, fought shrimp trawlers in the Atlantic, and protested the World Trade Organization in Seattle wearing green turtle suits.
Last week, the California-based Turtle Island Restoration Network brought Hawaii's longline fishing industry to its knees.
"Our goal was never to put Hawaii fishermen out of business," said Todd Steiner, director of the 2,000-member nonprofit organization in Forest Knolls, 20 miles north of San Francisco. "Our goal is to save the sea turtles."
Fishermen and suppliers this week were reeling under a court ruling that could dissolve the state's 115-vessel longline fleet and dry up a $165 million industry.
Turtle Island and the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Marine Conservation sued the National Marine Fisheries Service last year for failing to monitor the effect of longline fishing on endangered sea turtles while allowing a fast-growing fishing industry to take hold in Hawaii 10 years ago.
The suit draws attention to the endangered Pacific leatherback, a huge creature that can weigh half a ton, whose population has plummeted to 6,000 in recent years from more than 115,000.
Fisheries Service figures indicate that 174 leatherbacks were hooked by longliners last year, 11 of them known killed. Environmentalists, noting the difficulty of dislodging an adult leatherback from a fishing line in high seas, believe the fatalities are far higher.
U.S. District Judge David Ezra last Friday expanded his earlier injunction against longlining to an area of 6.5 million square miles surrounding the Hawaiian Islands. The ruling requires trained "observers" on all longline vessels within 30 days, a task that falls to the cash-strapped Fisheries Service and its staff of four observers.
Steiner sympathizes with Hawaii's fishermen but not the federal agency in charge of their fishing grounds. "We place the blame on the National Marine Fisheries Service for not protecting the turtles as they should," he said.
Judge Ezra last week agreed, ordering the federal agency to expedite a long-overdue environmental impact statement.
"It was the National Marine Fisheries Service's noncompliance with the National Environmental Policy Act that caused the current situation," he said.
The act requires the Fisheries Service to prepare an environmental impact study before allowing activity in areas occupied by endangered species. But a rapid influx of longliners, which began coming to Hawaii from depleted fishing grounds in the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Seaboard in 1988, went unchecked.
Pamela Plotkin, senior scientist at the Center for Marine Conservation, said federal officials turned their backs as turtles died on longline hooks.
"They have known for the last 10 years that this fishery is causing problems for the turtles, and they did nothing about it," said Plotkin, formerly with the Fisheries Service, Office of Protected Species.
Plotkin said she reported her concerns about a rapid decline in leatherbacks to a Fisheries Service regional office in 1994.
"Nobody would listen to me," she said.
Plotkin believes the agency has given turtles a low priority, concentrating instead on high-profile species such as the humpback whale and monk seal while paying close attention to commercial fishery resources. The Fisheries Service has responsibilities both for protecting endangered species and for regulating the fishing industry.
Elizabeth Mitchell, a former longline observer for the Fisheries Service in Honolulu and currently director of the Association for Professional Observers in Oregon, came to question the agency's motives for gathering data at sea.
"My feeling is, they really didn't care about the turtles," said Mitchell, who gathered data on turtle interactions and fish landings in 1994. "They really wanted to get information about the fish."
Charles Karnella, Pacific area administrator for the Fisheries Service, denies turtles are on the back burner.
"The National Marine Fisheries Service is a convenient whipping boy in this case," he said.
Karnella acknowledged the leatherback is in trouble, but said data from federal longline observers indicate that Hawaii longliners pose little threat to sea turtles.
"We did an analysis as recently as November of 1998, and we came to the conclusion that Hawaii's fishery wasn't likely to jeopardize any species of sea turtle," he said.
A far bigger concern, he said, is the unregulated activity of foreign fleets operating in international waters. Little is known of foreign impacts on sea turtles, and U.S. laws do not reach beyond territorial waters.
"Foreign vessels don't give us numbers, so we don't know how many they kill," said Paul Achitoff, attorney with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, a law firm representing Turtle Island and the Center for Marine Conservation in the Honolulu lawsuit.
By some estimates, as many as 1,500 leatherbacks are killed each year, the combined effect of killing nesting females in Mexico and longline fishing, he said.
New findings, however, indicate that another species of sea turtle -- the olive ridley -- is suffering greater-than-anticipated losses in Hawaii's waters, and this could bring a new look at fisheries service assumptions.
Meanwhile, Karnella defends the agency's numbers.
"For anybody to make the statement that the government should have stopped this longline fishing years ago because it was bad for sea turtles -- the record we have doesn't support that kind of a statement."
Turtle Island's Steiner acknowledges that Hawaii's fishermen are a lesser threat. But they contribute to the whole, he said, and unlike foreign vessels, they answer to federal laws.
"They are only a small part of the big picture, but we have to go after all pieces of the picture."
Steiner noted that Turtle Island is seeking a similar injunction against California's gillnet fishing fleet to protect leathernecks along the West Coast.
He said his group, an offshoot of San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute, is willing to negotiate with federal officials to find other ways to protect the leatherbacks.
But Earthjustice's Achitoff holds that far too much fishing is allowed in a sensitive area, and doubts that Hawaii's longline fishery will ever be the same.
"There may be a way to allow this fishery to continue in some form, but I don't believe it will be allowed to continue in the same form," he said.
Inouye brokeringStar Bulletin staff
$7 million to help
Help for embattled longliners is on the way, says U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye.
House and Senate conferees yesterday approved $7 million -- $2 million to finish an environmental impact statement and $5 million to put observers on longline vessels -- to head off Hawaii's longline fishing crisis.
The funding, which according to Inouye's office could be made available to the National Marine Fisheries Service as early as next week, is subject to an emergency declaration by President Clinton.
"I am pleased that my colleagues recognized the urgency and seriousness of the situation. I will be working with the White House to expedite the release of funds," Inouye said.
He said the burden of a ruling by a federal judge should fall on the National Marine Fisheries Service. Inouye called on the Fisheries Service to finish an environmental report on the longline industry's effect on endangered turtles.
"I remain hopeful that this EIS will ... protect the turtles while still providing Hawaii's consumers with fresh fish that we can all enjoy," he said.