Ruling slows isleBy Pat Omandam
Thousands of square miles of eastern Pacific Ocean have been closed to about 110 Hawaii-based long-line fishing boats while a federal judge awaits an environmental impact statement on the swordfish fishery's effect on sea turtles.
U.S. District Court Judge David A. Ezra yesterday ordered a portion of the Pacific closed to local long-line boats within 30 days. The injunction will remain in effect until the study is complete.
The injunction is being praised by marine environmentalists and conservationists. But those who set U.S. management policy for Western Pacific fisheries say Ezra's order harms the swordfish industry and bypasses the rule-making process that is the jurisdiction of the Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council.
The council manages waters three to 200 miles offshore from Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. "It's a disaster for all persons in the swordfish industry in Hawaii," said James Cook, council chairman.
"It will probably mean a landed value loss to the state of somewhere between $15 (million) and $20 million," Cook said.
Kitty Simonds, council executive director, said Ezra's harsh ruling means a shutdown of 30 percent of the Hawaii swordfish industry at a time when the fishery is healthy. Simonds said only Hawaii-based boats are affected by the order, meaning boats from other states or countries will continue to catch swordfish in these deep ocean waters while local fishermen -- and consumers -- are left out.
The Sea Turtle Restoration Project and the Center for Marine Conservation, represented by the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, filed a lawsuit last February against the National Marine Fisheries Service and related government agencies saying they have failed to properly manage the long-line fishery and comply with federal environmental laws.
In an Oct. 18 order, Ezra concluded that the government had violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to prepare an environmental impact statement for the long-line fishery and that a "carefully tailored" injunction was appropriate while the study was ongoing, said Earthjustice Attorney Paul Achitoff.
Achitoff said the order yesterday was based on data showing that the leatherback turtle is in imminent danger of extinction in the Pacific, and that a great majority of leatherbacks and loggerhead turtles are caught by Hawaii-based long-line fishing boats -- which are some of the largest vessels fishing for swordfish in the Pacific.
Hawaii long-line boats usually cast lines that are 20-30 miles long looking to catch tuna and swordfish. But in doing so, other marine animals such as sharks, turtles and albatrosses (which dive after the bait) often get stuck in the hundreds of hooks on these lines.