Sea turtle bycatch will be worse due to lawsuit in California swordfish fishery

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN) recently sued the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for permitting a new longline fishery off California. The fishery, authorized by NMFS in May 2019, will operate in an area previously closed to longline gear since 2004. The original fishery was closed due to bycatch of sea turtles and Guadalupe fur seals. The CBD believes re-opening this area to any longline fishing effort will do the same.

“Leatherback sea turtles need to catch a break, not a longline hook,” Catherine Kilduff, a CBD senior attorney, said in their press release. “Californians demand more selective and sustainable fishing for swordfish. But the indiscriminate longlines authorized by the Trump administration will hook, injure and drown endangered species off our coast.”

Leatherback turtles are listed as endangered under the United States’ Endangered Species Act (ESA), but are considered vulnerable by the IUCN. Fishing bycatch is cited as a major threat in addition to climate change, pollution, and loss of habitat.

An entire fleet of longliners in this area could be trouble for the turtles, but the fishery reopening is designed to be an exploratory fishery—only two permits were issued, meaning only two boats would be fishing. The fishery is being reopened under an Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP), which essentially functions as a research permit. The terms and conditions for this EFP were composed over multiple years and were unanimously approved by the Pacific Fishery Management Council: There are strict caps on bycatch and an immediate termination to the fishery if those caps are exceeded; onboard observers are also mandatory for every fishing trip. The fishery is designed such that if these two vessels prove to be a problem for sea turtles, it would be shut down immediately.

If the court approves the fishery it could boost local markets for swordfish and tuna, leading to new revenue for companies like Catalina Offshore Products, based in San Diego, that currently rely on the Hawaiian longline fleet for most of their pelagic inventory. Dave Rudie, Catalina’s owner and President of the California Pelagic Fisheries Association called the new permits, “a huge win for American fisheries.”

But TIRN director Todd Steiner disagrees, “this is basically the same fishery the agency outlawed fifteen years ago.” However, the closure of the fishery fifteen years ago actually had worse outcomes for sea turtles.

Sea turtle bycatch impact displacement

After the closure in 2004, West Coast swordfish landings plummeted from 1,000 to 400 tons in one year. Meanwhile, swordfish catch in the Eastern Pacific by countries other than the U.S. skyrocketed at the same time, from about 3,500 tons in 2005 to nearly 10,000 tons in 2013. The global demand for swordfish stayed consistent after the longline fishery closed in California, but instead of sourcing from well-regulated U.S. vessels that adhere to the Magnusen-Stevens Act, the majority has been sourced from vessels with less oversight, minimal traceability, and much higher sea turtle bycatch. This is a phenomenon known as environmental impact displacement. By closing the swordfish fishery in 2004, the U.S. moved the environmental impact of swordfish fishing to other parts of the world where it was less regulated and led to more sea turtle deaths than had the U.S. fishery remained open.

The population of swordfish in the North Pacific is healthy, so if turtle bycatch is limited, this would be a sustainable fishery that helps sea turtles around the world. More of the global market’s swordfish could be caught in a sustainable manner than is current practice in other parts of the Pacific ocean. But if the CBD is successful with their lawsuit, as they were earlier this year with the Dungeness crab fishery closure, then it might not happen.

Jack Cheney

Jack Cheney

Jack has sourced, sold, cooked, and sustainably certified seafood over the past 9 years. In addition to his contributions to Sustainable Fisheries UW, he is working to connect chefs with US fishermen to create more value for both ends of the supply chain. He earned a Master's in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington in 2015.

More on environmental impact displacement:

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