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Scientists ask U.N. to ban certain types of fishing in Pacific

By Colleen Valles

18th February 2003

SAN FRANCISCO – Marine scientists called on the United Nations to ban the use of longline boat and gill net fishing in the Pacific Ocean, saying the methods kill not just fish, but sea birds, endangered turtles and other animals.

A longline boat lays thousands of baited hooks over miles of ocean to catch tuna and swordfish. A gill net is a net suspended vertically in the water to catch white seabass, white croaker, some halibut and rockfish.

But fishermen are pulling up something more, and scientists are worried about the effect of "bycatch" – animals that are caught inadvertently while fishermen pursue other fish – on already struggling populations of fish and marine mammals.

One animal that is in grave danger, they say, is the leatherback turtle, whose population has dropped from about 90,000 to less than 5,000 over the last 20 years, said James Spotilla of Drexel University.

Steps have been taken to protect the beaches where the long-lived turtles lay their eggs, and the decline in their numbers appears to be largely due to adult turtles dying at a rate of about 25 percent a year, Spotilla said.

Leatherback and loggerhead turtles can travel great distances, and can "go through a gauntlet of fishing gear from the time they leave the shore to the time they return," said Larry Crowder, of the Duke University Marine Lab.

If nothing is done to protect them, leatherback turtles could go extinct in 10 to 30 years, which is why the scientists are pushing for a U.N. moratorium.

"It can take 10 years to negotiate a treaty," Crowder said. "Our sense is we don't have time to get into long, multilateral treaties."

Crowder also made the call for a moratorium Monday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Denver.

While some state and federal governments have passed laws restricting or banning longlines or gill nets in U.S. waters, the use of those methods is not restricted in international waters. The U.S. longline fishery accounts for only about 6 percent of the worldwide longline fishery.

"It's unlikely to be sufficient alone to help leatherbacks recover," Crowder said.

The U.N. has already passed a moratorium on driftnet fishing, and that took more than three years to get passed, said Todd Steiner, director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network.

Scientists seemed optimistic that a moratorium on longline and gill net fishing could get passed in a shorter time because data has already been gathered on how the turtles are affected by the fisheries, although not as much is known about the gill net fishery as about the longline fishery.

Steiner said more than 400 scientists and 100 marine conservation groups have joined in asking the U.N. for the moratorium.

Frank Paladino, a scientist with Indiana-Purdue University, noted that turtles are not the only animals affected by the fisheries, saying that if nothing was done and the diversity of marine life fell below a certain level, "I think it's going to start spelling the death knell for the Pacific ecosystem."

But the scientists emphasized the loss of the turtles and other species is not inevitable.

"It's all humans having caused this decline," Paladino said. "It's something that we can change."