Longline swordfishing permit endangers Hawaiian sea turtles, court rules

Published on
January 2, 2018

A U.S. federal appeals court ruled last month that a decision to expand longline swordfishing in Hawaii was arbitrary and went against laws designed to protect endangered species, namely loggerhead sea turtles.

The decision rendered by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals partially overturns a federal district court ruling that allowed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a permit in 2012 to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Earthjustice filed a lawsuit representing Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Center for Biological Diversity in response to that decision, arguing that bycatch limits on turtles and migratory sea birds, which can become ensnared on the longline hooks, weren’t properly analyzed before the permit was issued.

“Both the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which are supposed to be protecting our wildlife, have instead been illegally helping the longliners push them to the brink of extinction,” Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff said. 

Achitoff told the Associated Press the ruling may lead to lower allowed limits for hooking or entangling loggerhead turtles.

In its opinion, published on 27 December, 2017, the court agreed that “the scientific data suggested that the loggerhead population would significantly decline, and the [FWS] failed to sufficiently explain the discrepancy in its opinion and the record evidence.”

Kristen Monsell, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity, said sea turtles could become extinct without stronger regulations over longline fisheries.

“We’re happy to see the court reject the reckless expansion of this fishery’s lethal impact on sea turtles and seabirds,” she said.

Environmental advocates also say the court’s ruling serves as a warning to the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which announced last month it would not prosecute companies that accidentally kill migratory birds. 

The 22 December, 2017, memo written by Daniel Jorjani, the deputy principal solicitor for the Interior Department, said applying the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to such incidents “hangs the sword of Damocles over a host of otherwise lawful and productive actions.” Penalties for violating the act include six months in jail and a USD 15,000 (EUR 12,434.95) fine. 

“This ruling is also another black eye for the Trump administration, which is trying to dismantle the very laws that protect these defenseless animals,” said Todd Steiner, the executive director for the Turtle Island Restoration Network. 

While the appellate court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on its claims regarding loggerhead turtles, it upheld the portion of the district court’s ruling regarding the impact the permit had on leatherback turtles.

Hawaii Longline Association board member Jim Cook said the industry group will be reviewing the case. 

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