SAN FRANCISCO, California -- Conservation groups filed a formal petition today to increase protections for critically imperiled loggerhead sea turtles that occur off the U.S. West Coast and are caught and killed in industrial fisheries based in California and Hawaii. The petition, filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network, seeks to have North Pacific loggerhead sea turtles listed as “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act and to have areas along the California coast and off Hawaii designated as “critical habitat” for the species.
Loggerhead sea turtles in the North Pacific nest in Japan, but cross the Pacific to feed in the rich waters off the coast of California and Baja California, Mexico. These ancient animals, which can live for a century or more, have swum the Earth’s oceans since the days of dinosaurs. However, in the past 25 years populations have declined by over 80 percent, with fewer than 1,000 females returning to their natal beaches to nest each year.
The primary threat to loggerhead sea turtles is pelagic longline fishing. Longline fishing vessels seeking swordfish and tuna each deploy several thousand baited hooks on fishing lines that can extend for more than 60 miles. Over a billion longline hooks are set in the world’s oceans each year, catching and killing not just swordfish and tuna but thousands of sea turtles, seabirds, marine mammals and sharks.
“Sea turtles survived the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, but are unlikely to survive longline fishing,” said Miyoko Sakashita, ocean program attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “This barbaric fishing gear should be banned from our nation’s and international waters.”
More than 1,000 scientists and 300 organizations from 100-plus countries have called upon the United Nations for a moratorium on pelagic longline fishing in the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, rather than head this call, the United States is gearing up to expand such fisheries. Following a successful lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network, in 2004 longline fishing for swordfish was prohibited along the West Coast. However, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency charged with managing fisheries as well as sea turtles, has proposed to issue a permit that would allow an “experimental” longline fishery for swordfish off the California and Oregon coasts this fall. The permit is the first step toward establishing a full-scale industrial longline fishery off the West Coast. A similar fishery is operated out of Hawaii and is responsible for the deaths of numerous whales in addition to sea turtles.
“Rather than opening the waters off California and Oregon to deadly industrial fishing fleets, we should be protecting these areas as critical habitat for loggerhead sea turtles and other imperiled wildlife,” said Todd Steiner, executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network.
North Pacific loggerheads are geographically isolated and genetically distinct from loggerheads that occur in the Atlantic, Indian and South Pacific Oceans. Loggerhead sea turtles are currently listed as “threatened” throughout their range under the Endangered Species Act. Separate listing of the more imperiled North Pacific loggerheads would trigger additional protections under U.S. law, including the designation of critical habitat.
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