The federal Pacific Fishery Management Council voted on Saturday, April 4 to maintain a standing prohibition on a West Coast-based high seas longline fishery. The vote will prevent the opening of a new swordfish fishery that would threaten migrating loggerhead sea turtles and other marine wildlife on the high seas of the North Pacific Ocean.
"We are proud of the Council for its decision to not add an additional threat to already struggling ocean wildlife," said Ben Enticknap, Pacific Project Manager of Oceana.
The National Marine Fisheries Service had proposed to open this fishery that would target swordfish on the high seas of the North Pacific Ocean more than 200 miles off the coast of California and Oregon. A West Coast-based high seas longline fishery operated for more than a decade until a court ruling in 2001 closed much of the high seas fishing area to protect threatened loggerhead sea turtles migrating between nesting beaches in Japan and foraging grounds in Baja California. Longline gear used to target swordfish off California, within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (out to 200 miles from shore) has been prohibited since at least 1977 due to environmental concerns.
"This decision by the federal fishery Council demonstrates responsibility for the conservation of critically endangered leatherback sea turtles, loggerhead sea turtles, dolphins, whales, and in avoiding the bycatch of sharks and other fish" added Enticknap, "all of which were at risk by the proposed swordfish longline fishery."
An environmental analysis prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service and Pacific Fishery Management Council estimated that annually, a swordfish fishery in the high seas of the North Pacific would capture three to nine leatherback sea four to 27 loggerhead sea turtles, five to 10 marine mammals, and thousands of sharks, tuna, marlin and other fish, depending on how many vessels were authorized to participate in the fishery. While the fishery would have been required to use "circle hooks" that are less damaging than traditional "J hooks", analysts determined that the fishery would still kill sea turtles, marine mammals, seabirds and increase the bycatch of over twenty species of fish including sharks, tuna and marlin.
Representatives on the Council from California, Washington and Idaho voted to maintain the prohibition on a West Coast-based high seas longline fishery. The National Marine Fisheries Service who supported opening the longline fishery characterized it as a way to be better environmental stewards. However, it became clear during the hearing and debate among Council members that the proposed fishery would increase the pressure on already struggling populations of sea turtles, marine mammals and depleted fish populations, some of which have been listed as threatened or endangered by the same National Marine Fisheries Service.
"This decision affirms key conservation measures. To truly reverse the decline of loggerhead and Pacific leatherback sea turtles and bring them back to healthy population levels, we need to protect critical habitats and migratory corridors in our ocean waters and to work with other nations to do the same," Enticknap concluded.