White House OK of Turtle-Snaring Fishing Technique Blocked

(CN) – A federal judge has blocked a bid by the Trump administration to bring back a controversial commercial fishing technique that routinely snares endangered species like sea turtles as bycatch.

Leatherback sea turtle at the Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Virgin Islands. (Photo by Claudia Lombard, USFWS)

Longlining allows commercial fishermen to efficiently capture of highly coveted fish species like tuna, swordfish, halibut and sablefish. In the Bering Sea off the coast, of Alaska, some 2,500 hooks from a series of interconnected lines can bring in thousands of pounds of seafood in a single day.

However, there is a catch. More specifically there is bycatch, a term that describes longlines habit of ensnaring unintended species that have no commercial viability or in the worst cases are endangered.

Such is the case with leatherback sea turtles, the largest of all living turtles, characterized by both its girth and its lack of a bony carapace. It is instead covered by oily skin resembling leather, hence its name.

The leatherback sea turtle roams throughout the world’s oceans and is in decline, with nesting females declining by half since 1980. Scientists blame habitat degradation and development, but longlining has been a factor in accidentally killing several of leatherback sea turtle specimens.

For this reason, the federal government banned longlining in 2004.

But the Trump administration granted an exemption to two commercial fishing operations off the coast of California to allow the use of longlining techniques.

Environmentalists quickly sued, saying the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to adequately account for how the reintroduction of longlining would affect the diminishing population of Pacific leatherback sea turtles. A federal judge agreed and blocked the exemptions.

“By failing to consider its own prior opinion, defendants’ 2018 BiOp [biological opinion] failed to consider the best available science,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Kandis Westmore wrote in a 12-page ruling issued late Friday. “Thus the 2018 BiOp is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and not in accordance with the law.”

The ruling blocks the resumption of longlining off the coast of California and was hailed by the conservation groups that brought the suit.

“The Trump administration’s illegal and anti-environmental policy to allow more endangered sea turtles to die at the hands of the commercial longline industry has thankfully been thwarted by the courts,” said Todd Steiner, ecologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. “Longline fishing is not only unsustainable, it is cruel and heartless to kill so many non-target animals.”

However, commercial fishermen contend significant gear alterations have been made since longlining was banned in 2004 that has made the practice significantly safer for sea turtles. Specifically, the type of circular hook created to catch mackerel has been modified to so as not to ensnare sea turtles.

Other arguments focus on Asian fishermen – many of whom perceive sea turtles as commercially viable catch – as the real culprit in the demise of the leatherback sea turtle population, and that American fishermen bear the economic brunt for practices outside of their control.

Fishermen also claim longlining is safer than other fishing practices that lead to bycatch, particularly the  use of nets and bottom trawling.

Those practices are also more resource-intensive than longlining, which requires less expenditure of fuel and can have less impact on a marine ecosystem as a result, they say.

But Judge Westmore was adamant that under the federal government’s own recovery program guidelines, even one turtle death is too much.

“Defendants do not explain how they reconciled the prior opinion that ‘every turtle counts’ to the survival of the species with the environmental assessment’s current opinion that one turtle is expendable,” Westmore wrote.

An email sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service seeking comment was not returned by press time.

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