View Point

By Paul Achitoff

Saturday, December 11, 1999

Longline ban
won’t destroy
fishing industry

Judge David Ezra's decision to ban longline fishing from a section of ocean north of the Hawaiian islands has raised wildly inaccurate claims of disaster for industry and consumers alike. Industry's misinformation campaign to convince the public that the ban will increase fish prices has begun. Claims have already been made that the decision destroyed the swordfish industry, and could mean a shortage of bluefin tuna around New Year's. One paper opined that taking several months to complete an environmental impact statement for the longline fishery is "too long," and that the injunction was "unfair." The following facts may be helpful.

1. Judge Ezra's decision didn't close the local swordfish fishery. Government statistics show that in 1998, fully two-thirds of the swordfish caught by the longliners were caught in areas that will remain open, including areas in which it is easier to catch swordfish than in the closed area.

2. About 90 percent of endangered leatherback turtles and almost all threatened loggerhead turtles were caught in the closed area.

3. The total value of all swordfish caught in the closed area during 1998 was less than $4 million -- about 8 percent of the longliners' total revenues. The fishermen will be able to make up at least some of this by continuing to fish in the millions of square miles of ocean that remain open.

4. Almost all swordfish caught by local longliners is sent to the mainland.

5. In 1998, local fishermen caught almost 95 percent of their ahi in areas that will remain open.

6. Most of the longline boats affected by the ban came to these waters within the last 10 years, after overfishing swordfish stocks in the Atlantic.

7. The leatherback turtle has been swimming the Pacific for 100 million years. Commercial fishing, along with hunting of eggs and nesting females, has in the last 20 years reduced its population to a few thousand. The nation's foremost turtle experts personally urged the court to take immediate action to prevent the species' imminent extinction.

8. The same vessels that catch turtles also catch thousands of albatross each year, and fin tens of thousands of sharks.

9. The fishery management council (Westpac) and the National Marine Fisheries Service knew for years there was a crisis, but refused to take action to protect the turtles. Westpac's chairperson is a longliner.

10. The injunction can't be avoided simply by fishing the same grounds out of a West Coast port. The cost of fuel and ice make traveling thousands of miles from the mainland to the closed area uneconomical -- and pointless, since most of the swordfish grounds will remain open to the Hawaii fleet.

An Environmental Impact Statement assessing the impacts of the longline fishery on turtles, seabirds, sharks, and other aspects of the environment, and examining alternatives -- such as fishing in different places, at different times of day or year -- has never been done. It's in no one's interest to rush through the EIS process so we can return to the disastrous practices of the past as quickly as possible. The necessary research and public input can't be done in a few months. A faulty EIS will be overturned in court, prolonging the injunction.

Finally, I question that Judge Ezra's decision is "unfair" because it does not (because it legally cannot) also enjoin foreign fleets in the Pacific. This seems like the playground "fairness" of "If Johnny gets to kill endangered turtles, why can't I?" We must do what can be done to bring these animals back from the brink. The U.S. must be a leader, and not use the destruction of our environment by others as an excuse to join in.

Paul Achitoff is an attorney for
Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.

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