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UN panel of experts urges closing fisheries to save sea turtles

Fishing Monthly

25th June 2004

A PANEL of experts of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has released a report that recommends closing fisheries that pose the greatest threat to critically endangered Pacific leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles.

In order to address the threat of extinction of leatherback and loggerheads, the panel of experts also recommended that "eco labels" be introduced, fishing effort reduced and financial support be directed towards developing countries to support conservation efforts.

"This is a critically important first step in protecting the world's sea turtles from extinction," explains Dr Robert Ovetz, Save the Leatherback Campaign Coordinator with the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. The report urges that fisheries, including gillnets and longlines, that pose the worst threats to sea turtles, should be subjected to closures.

"The worst fisheries, such as gillnetting and longlining, need to be shut down until they clean up their act," says Ovetz. This recommendation for closures echoes statements by scientists and conservation leaders urging the UN to protect leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles by immediately implementing a Pacific-wide moratorium on gillnets and longlines. High seas longlining for tuna, swordfish and shark receives particular criticism in the report, which documents that more than 60,000 sea turtles are caught and as many as 30,000 killed by longlining in the Mediterranean Sea alone.

Longlines in both coastal and offshore global fisheries are identified as high threats to the survival of endangered leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles.

The Pacific leatherback population is teetering on the verge of extinction, so the FAO has made the right move calling for closing the worst fisheries, says Todd Steiner, Director of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. Nesting female Pacific leatherbacks have declined by 95% since 1980. A recent study in the scientific journal Ecology Letters estimates that worldwide, 200,000 critically endangered loggerheads and 50,000 critically endangered leatherbacks are caught each year by longlines. The authors estimate that 3600 to 9200 loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles were killed by longlines in the Pacific in 2000. Scientists have warned that the Pacific leatherback could go extinct within the next 5-20 years unless immediate action is taken to reverse their slide into oblivion. One of those actions is to impose a Pacific-wide moratorium on longline fishing.

In addition to sea turtles, an estimated 4 million whales, dolphins, sharks, sea birds, billfish, sea lions and other marine species are maimed and killed by longlines each year in just the Pacific according to a new documentary film and report to be released soon by the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.