European Cetacean Bycatch banner loading

"Man is but a strand in the complex web of life"

Internal links buttons



Fishermen hope to catch a break

Fight to save turtles could sink fleet
By Kimberly Edds

Special to The Washington Post

4th February 2004

San Pedro, California.

Photo by: Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission

With one hand on his hip, Quang Nguyen frowns as he stands on the dock of the fish-processing plant. Glancing at the oversize scale, he writes down the weight of the swordfish before it is rudely hooked and tossed onto the wooden pallet, spraying the fisherman with bits of flesh.

It wasn't a good trip for the Blue Dragon, the boat Nguyen owns. His crew of five netted only 10,000 pounds of fish -- not nearly enough to pay for the trip, much less make a profit. Bad weather may have been to blame for some of their misfortune, but Nguyen doesn't have time for excuses. He knows he is facing an even bigger problem than rough seas and small fish. A proposed federal ban on all commercial swordfishing on the West Coast could be approved in the coming months -- a move that will cost Nguyen his livelihood and put the 21 other fishing boats that make up the San Pedro swordfishing fleet, the largest on the West Coast, out of business.

The National Marine Fisheries Service says a ban on "long-lining" may be the only thing that can put the brakes on the large number of endangered sea turtles that are being killed in fishermen's lines. Long-lining is the practice of floating lines of baited hooks over distances as great as 50 miles. The regulations would make a 1,600-mile stretch of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the West Coast off limits to that type of fishing.

As many as 52 leatherback and 174 loggerhead turtles are caught each year by the San Pedro fleet, according to the fisheries service. Even if they are pulled out of the water alive, the majority of the turtles die, said Tim Price of the service's southwest regional office. Only a few thousand leatherbacks and loggerheads are left in Pacific waters, and biologists predict that the leatherback could become extinct in 10 to 30 years unless fishing regulations are strengthened.

The fisheries service's proposal would ban long-line fishing within the top 100 feet of the water, where most turtle encounters occur. But that is also where the commercial swordfishermen catch their fish -- and make the money to pay their bills.

The last time a federal observer took a trip on the Blue Dragon, five turtles were hauled aboard, entangled in fishing lines and snagged on hooks. But that was an anomaly, Nguyen said. And the five turtles that were hooked were all cut free and released.

"They all lived. They all swam away," Nguyen said, vigorously pumping his fist toward the ocean. He said no turtles were caught on his latest trip.

In an effort to save the turtles from extinction, environmentalists with the San Francisco-based Sea Turtle Restoration Project and other conservation groups have sued to have long-lining banned. Restrictions on long-line fishing in the waters off Hawaii have already chased Nguyen and other vessel owners -- mostly Vietnamese American men -- to the West Coast. With nowhere else to go to fish, the fishermen won't be able to pay the mortgages on their boats, should a ban be approved there.

"The bank isn't going to listen to that," said Lillo Augello, owner of Western Fish Co., which packs and sells the fish caught by the majority of the West Coast fleet.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, an advisory board that includes fishermen, though not swordfishermen, has proposed a more lenient, partial ban on long-lining. The fisheries service says the leatherback and loggerhead deaths have reached such critical levels that only a complete ban will do, but it is also exploring whether the use of new types of fish hooks and bait would protect the endangered turtles.

The damage to the species may already be done, said Larry Crowder, a biologist with the Duke University Marine Laboratory.

"If it takes 10 years to solve all the problems, there is a 50 percent chance they will be extinct. We don't have that kind of time," Crowder said.

If approved, the new federal restrictions could be in place by March.

"I'm asking my lawyer to help us do anything. Help us get some money for our boats from the government or something because if they ban this we are going to need money to survive," said Nguyen, who has invested thousands of dollars on improvements to the Blue Dragon. "I don't know what I'm going to do if they ban. How is our family going to survive?"

The fishermen say they are doing what they can to cut down on the number of turtle deaths, using blue-dyed bait, which does not attract turtles, and special hooks. Western Fish Co. has adopted a Mexican beach north of Cabo San Lucas to aid the sea turtles' reproduction, helping to protect the eggs from predators in the hope of boosting population numbers.

Augello said the San Pedro-based fishermen are being unfairly targeted by environmentalists who are exaggerating the impact the fleet has on the turtle population. More than 4,000 international boats roam the waters off the West Coast, but only American boats are required to abide by the Endangered Species Act. Dozens of protected sea turtles are being hooked by international boats, but because those vessel owners don't fall under the jurisdiction of U.S. authorities, nothing can be done to punish them.

And even if a total ban on American fishing is approved, turtles will still be killed by international fishing boats, Augello said.

Although the San Pedro fleet is working to bring the number of turtle deaths down, significant progress will not be made without the international fleet getting on board, Crowder said.

"You could close down the entire U.S. fishery and not have a huge impact on the fate of the turtles," Crowder said. "You have to come up with a solution that can also be marketed internationally."