Friday, June 28, 2002

Fishing tests threaten
turtles, suit says

3 groups want the court to stop
ongoing longline experiments

By Diana Leone

Environmental groups filed a lawsuit yesterday alleging that National Marine Fisheries Service-approved longline fishing experiments now under way will cause unacceptable harm to endangered sea turtles.

Under a special permit issued in January, a small number of longliners targeting swordfish will be allowed to kill up to six green sea turtles, 15 leatherback sea turtles and 87 loggerhead turtles in the course of determining whether experimental fishing methods could ultimately reduce accidental catch of turtles, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit, filed by the Ocean Conservancy, the Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Center for Biological Diversity, asks the court to find the fisheries service in violation of the Endangered Species Act and related federal laws.

"Our position is that the turtles are already so close to extinction that even this experiment is not permissible under the Endangered Species Act," said Paul Achitoff, the Hawaii EarthJustice attorney handling the case.

Achitoff said he will be asking the court to stop the experiments.

No more than 3,000 leatherback turtles remain in the Pacific, down from 100,000 about 20 years ago, said Brendan Cummings, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in Berkeley, Calif.

Scientists say the rare creatures, which can get as large as a Volkswagen Bug, could go extinct in 10 years without more protection.

Sean Martin, president of the Hawaii Longline Association, said it's "not surprising" that environmental groups have again filed a lawsuit that affects the longline fishing industry, which he said is "very anxious to conduct experiments that will reduce interactions on all protected species.

"If we are not allowed to conduct the experiments, the fishery would be in jeopardy," Martin said.

Longlining for swordfish by Hawaii-based vessels was banned by federal court order in April 2001, based on evidence that shallow-set hooks for swordfish are more likely to catch turtles than the deeper-set hooks for tuna.

The fishing experiments approved by the fisheries service test a variety of methods to prevent turtles from getting hooked by longliners fishing for swordfish.

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