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Groups Sue Over Experimental Longlining in Hawaii


Hawaii, June 28, 2002 (ENS)

Three environmental groups have filed a lawsuit challenging an experimental swordfish longline fishery that has been authorized to kill 117 threatened and endangered sea turtles.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has proposed to issue permits for an experimental fishing program that would allow longline fishing in an area where the agency had banned longlining to protect turtles. The program would test fishing gear intended to reduce the accidental snaring of turtles on baited hooks intended to catch swordfish.

The Sea Turtle Restoration Project of Turtle Island Restoration Network, Center for Biological Diversity, and The Ocean Conservancy, represented by Earthjustice, filed suit in federal district court in Hawaii to halt the project, charging that it duplicates previous research and would kill the very turtles it is intended to help safeguard.

"NMFS is trying to create a loophole to allow swordfish fishing to continue, even after its own scientists have warned that the so called experiment is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the turtles," said Paul Achitoff, Earthjustice attorney for the plaintiffs.

NMFS has estimated that the proposed experiment will kill up to 15 endangered leatherback turtles, 87 loggerheads and six green turtles. The fishing vessel operators will be allowed to sell their catch and retain the profit, and will be granted a permit to kill threatened and critically endangered sea turtles.

The suit alleges that the NMFS decision to grant a permit to itself to conduct the experimental fishery contradicts the scientific conclusions in the agency's own Biological Opinion, which suggests that the turtles that the project will kill could jeopardize the survival of the loggerhead and leatherback turtle species. The suit seeks to halt the experiment until NMFS complies with the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Marydele Donnelly, sea turtle research scientist for The Ocean Conservancy, said previous research in the Atlantic Ocean has shown that blue dyed bait and removing hooks near buoys - some of the tactics that NMFS intends to test near Hawaii - do not deter sea turtles from taking bait or getting  hooked.

"NMFS' Pacific experiment is uselessly duplicating this research, adding to our belief that the experiments in Hawaii are simply a cover for swordfish fishing," Donnelly said.