Court urged to protect turtle, now
Conservationists estimate that the Hawaii-based longline fishery alone takes at least 244 leatherbacks annually.
November 16, 1999
Web posted at: 12:41 p.m. EST (1741 GMT)
By Environmental News Network staff
Protection for the Pacific leatherback sea turtle cannot wait and a recent court decision to study the creature's plight doesn't go far enough, conservation groups say.
The primary cause of the leatherback decline in the Pacific is the turtle's incidental capture and injury by fisherman, according to conservationists.
Sea turtles often suffer severe internal injuries from swallowing fishing hooks used to catch tuna and swordfish. Although there is little data on how many turtles actually die, conservationists estimate that the Hawaii-based longline fishery alone takes at least 244 leatherbacks annually.
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The National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for regulating fisheries and protecting endangered species, has been highly criticized for not adequately protecting the Pacific leatherbacks.
"Each time they have reviewed the situation, NMFS has increased the number of turtles that can be taken per (fishing) permit," said Tim Eichenberg, a spokesperson for the Center for Marine Conservation. The service has also allowed an increase in the number of hooks used in the fishery, he said.
In February, the Center for Marine Conservation and the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, represented by the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, filed a lawsuit in a Hawaii Federal District Court alleging that the service violated the National Environmental Policy Act.
Recently, the court ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service to prepare an environmental impact statement for the operation long line fisheries. This spurred both conservation groups to propose restrictions that would reduce the take of leatherbacks by 75 percent.
The proposal is intended to require the National Marine Fisheries Service to undertake conservation measures while preparing the environmental impact statement over the next two years.
"We hope that the judge will savor our proposal because of the serious situation the pacific leatherback sea turtle is in," said Dr. Pamela Plotkin, senior conservation scientist at the Center for Marine Conservation. "Leatherback populations in the Pacific are declining at rates that are not sustainable," she said.
Conservationists say the take of just one Pacific leatherback sea turtle could be a serious blow to the population.
Plotkin said the number of turtles that have returned to their nesting grounds across the entire Pacific has declined by 50 percent over the last four years. "Even the take of one turtle could be a serious blow to the population," she warns.
One way to reduce the take of leatherbacks would be to close turtle-dense areas to the fishing.
But the National Marine Fisheries Service has a different conservation plan in mind while it prepares the required environmental impact statement.
The injunction measures they have proposed call for additional scientific research on the leatherbacks. Conservationists say they want to see a conservation measure that is proven, not experimental.
"Since '94 (the service) has been saying they need more research. If they had been doing research back then like they said they would, then they would have a solution now. We do not have four more years to study this problem," Plotkin said.
Hawaii Federal District Court Judge David A. Ezra is expected to decide on an injunction proposal on Nov. 22.
Copyright 1999, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved
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