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Ending the race for the last turtle



20th May 2004

Ocean Commission Report Falls Short

The recently released preliminary report of the US Commission on Ocean Policy, with all its flaws, got one thing right: we need to “end the race for the last fish.”

But the commission did not go far enough. We need to radically reform our domestic regional fisheries management councils and cooperate with other nations through the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) if we are to save our ocean and fisheries. The first place we need to start is the US regional fishery management councils - the primary culprits behind the crisis of our domestic fisheries. It is a classic case of the fox being in charge of the hen house. The council system was devised by politicians from states with significant commercial fishing interests and given a blanket exemption from federal conflict of interest laws since it was formed in 1976.

According to a recent joint Pew and Stanford University report, the councils are riddled with conflicts of interest, lack basic information about most of the species under their responsibility, ignore the impact on endangered species, and refuse to follow their own scientist1s recommendations.

These fundamental flaws in the councils undermine their responsibility to manage and protect our publicly owned fisheries and ensure they still exist to feed future generations.

Unfortunately, the council system is set up in a way that explicitly violates this fundamental principle. The same fishermen who exploit our fisheries also get to decide how much they can catch all the while ignoring the warnings of their own scientific advisory panels and the advice of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, which oversees the councils.

The Western Pacific Fisheries Management Council1s (WESTPAC) failure to reign itself in order to prevent the extinction of the Pacific leatherback sea turtle is the poster child of what is wrong with the councils.

A recent article in the scientific journal Nature found that the ancient leatherback1s Pacific female nesting population has collapsed by 95% in the last 22 years. Scientists warn that it could go extinct in the next 5-30 years if immediate action isn1t taken to reverse the freefall.

The primary reason for the decline of the leatherbacks is longlining, a type of fishing which maims and kills about 4 million whales, dolphins, seabirds, sharks, sea lions and billfish each year throughout the Pacific.

Rather than taking action on this important news, WESTPAC, which overseas the longlining that occurs in the leatherback’s migratory swimway, did nothing.

Perhaps this is not surprising when one considers that the council members include among their ranks the very longline fishermen killing leatherbacks.

This is no trivial matter in the Pacific where the corruption riddled council has been given free reign once again to let loose tuna and swordfish longliners subject to a time-area closure and a ban imposed by a federal court since 1999. In 1999, a federal court found that WESTPAC had not been protecting critically endangered leatherback sea turtles from being caught and killed by longlines and took the decision making out of its hands by mandating a time and area closure to protect the turtles.

When the closure for swordfishing began, two current and future council members relocated their jointly owned longline business to California and Mexico to re-supply vessels fishing in the same area who evading the court decision by landing their catch in California rather than Hawaii.

When a lawsuit threatened to close this loophole, the longline industry took action. They funded and co-sponsored a NOAA Fisheries study in the Atlantic, which resulted in only preliminary data providing the questionable justification for NOAA Fisheries to reopen the fishery in the Pacific.

This “race for the last turtle” in the Pacific is a fine illustration of why the council approach is fundamentally flawed and corrupt, and why we need a substantive “ecosystem” based approach proposed by the Ocean Commission that encourages international planning and collaboration.

If there is one recommendation the Oceans Commission got right is the need for the US to rejoin the international community and participate in UN institutions that protect and conserve the ocean as a global common asset.

The commission specifically urges the US to sign and ratify the 1982 UN Convention on Law of the Sea which the US helped negotiate but has never supported even though it continues to host its meetings in New York City. The Senate appears ready to do just that as soon as the treaty, which just unanimously sailed through the Foreign Relation Committee, awaits a floor debate.

Law of the Seas, which meets again in June 7-11, is the place to us to start to reform the way we manage and share our fisheries. It would be an effective instrument for the US not only to encourage other longlining nations to protect the nearly extinct ancient leatherback sea turtle from oblivion but also to prevent an otherwise inevitable race for the last fish.

Robert Ovetz, PhD is the Save the Leatherback Campaign Coordinator with the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.

Robert Ovetz can be reach at: