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Friday, July 14, 2000

Fishery groups
petition judge
to reconsider

Next week they'll argue
his ban to protect turtles
misfires 'drastically'

Proposed fishing zones
Turtle kill estimates explained

By Peter Wagner


A federal judge went overboard in closing 6.5 million square miles of prime fishing grounds to all but limited long-lining, a blunder that could gut a $50 million fishing industry while doing little to help endangered sea turtles.

That's according to the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Hawaii Longline Association, which have asked U.S. District Judge David Ezra to reconsider his June 26 decision. Oral arguments are scheduled Tuesday.

According to court documents recently filed by the fisheries agency, Ezra's order was crafted from mismatched elements of opposing proposals he solicited last year to remedy concerns over the turtles. The proposals suggest a variety of ocean closure schemes, a program of scientific monitoring by fisheries observers, and limits on the length of time a fishing line can stay in the water.

"It appears the court has taken these elements out of their proper context and inserted them into a new configuration, thus creating probably unintended but drastically different environmental and economic effects," says the agency's filing.

But two environmental groups that filed the 1999 lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service triggering Ezra's sweeping order say the judge was justified.

"Notwithstanding the possible economic impacts of the modified injunction, there is nothing erroneous or unjust about limiting fishing effort to prevent a fishery that has mushroomed without any effective oversight from killing critically endangered animals," say the groups -- Turtle Island Restoration Network and Center for Marine Conservation -- in recent legal briefs.

Ezra in November ordered 1.5 million miles of ocean closed to longliners. Last month he expanded the area to the full range of Hawaii's fleet, pending completion of an environmental impact study by the fisheries agency. The order, which goes into effect July 26, will close an area north of Hawaii year-round while allowing 636 "sets" -- a daylong deployment of fishing gear -- in a larger area extending south of the islands.

The fisheries agency says Ezra's order will shut down 95 percent of the fishery and cost $44 million in revenues while doing little to help the endangered turtles.

Environmentalists say the Pacific leatherback is close to extinction and suspect that more than the reported 11 leatherbacks were lost to longline hooks last year. Their suit says the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to determine the impacts of longlining on the leatherback and other endangered turtles before allowing a major fishing industry to take hold here in the past ten years.

But some scientists disagree.

Kim Holland, associate researcher for the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, said Hawaii's longline fleet poses little threat to turtles.

"Comparatively speaking, Hawaii has a small longline fishery, which has a very small impact on the leatherback turtle population," he said.

In its proposal to Ezra, the fisheries agency suggested closing a large area north and south of Hawaii, but leaving open a 420-mile-wide gap around the islands -- between 16 degrees north and 23 degrees north latitudes. The area, the agency argued, would give longliners a place to fish while adjacent areas were closed for scientific data-gathering.

To that end, the agency proposed allowing an additional 636 sets -- fishing lines left in the water, in the restricted areas, each carrying a fisheries observer to record turtle interactions.

Ezra's order leaves no such wiggle room for the fishermen, instead offering only the 636 sets in the restricted area -- a huge reduction from the 12,000 sets recorded by longliners last year. As such, the judge's order does little to balance environmental with economic concerns, the agency says.

"Throughout this litigation, the court has maintained a commitment to craft a narrowly drawn injunction that strikes a proper balance between conferring the maximum benefits on the affected species of sea turtles, especially the leatherback turtle, and minimizing the economic harm to the fishery," said the agency.

But, likening the plight of longliners to loggers in the Pacific Northwest who were forced to give way to the spotted owl, environmentalists say that comparing turtles with dollars is unfair.

"Plaintiffs are aware of no case in which a court has declined to completely enjoin the unauthorized killing of critically endangered animals on the ground that the balance of equities favors preserving economic activity over the species' survival."

Fishing zone map

Turtle kill figures
based on Spain data

By Steve Murray


The government statistician whose estimates have touched off heated debate on the number of sea turtles killed by Hawaii's longline fishermen explained her findings at the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council meeting yesterday.

Marti McCracken, statistician for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the estimates of how many turtles are killed is based on the turtles' chance of surviving an encounter. McCracken said the numbers she uses are based on a study done in Spain that measured the life expectancy of a turtle after it had been caught.

The system used to figure turtle kills is based on a scale from 0 for an unharmed turtle to a 1 for a dead turtle. A turtle that swallows a hook would be given a factor of 0.9, while a turtle hooked externally or found tangled in a line gets a factor of 0.

McCracken estimates 710 turtles have had some type of interaction with longline equipment and that 136 turtles have died from these encounters.

The meeting was scheduled to clarify information to council members and the public about areas affected by the lawsuit against the Fisheries Service.

Charles Karnella, administrator at the Pacific area office of the Fisheries Service, estimated the cost of 100 percent observer coverage at about $12 million annually.

Council member Thomas Webster said the number of sets -- fishing lines in the water -- restricted by court order to a maximum of 636 per year is too small. "There are just enough days to support five to seven boats in the entire fleet," he said.

EnviroWatch President Carroll Cox told the council it is not looking out for fishermen's interests.

"If you were a doctor, you'd be sued for malpractice," he said.

EnviroWatch is an environmental watchdog group that monitors ethical behavior in government-run environmental agencies.

Cox said the council could help both sides by paying part of the cost of observers. He said 20 percent coverage would provide the data necessary to protect the turtles while allowing fishermen their normal amount of sets.

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