The National Marine Fisheries Service has relaxed its limits on the number of endangered sea turtles that can be captured and possibly killed by Hawaiian swordfish fishermen using a long hooked fishing line.
Fishermen are now allowed to catch 16 leatherback sea turtles and 17 North Pacific loggerhead sea turtles. In November the leatherback catch can go up to 26, more than a 60 percent increase, and the loggerhead catch to 34, about a 100 percent increase.
The increase was condemned by Oceana, an advocacy group dedicated to protecting marine life. Ben Enticknap, the Pacific project manager for the group, called it outrageous.
“On the one hand the federal government acknowledges that Pacific leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles are endangered,” Enticknap said. “At the same time they say it’s okay for U.S. fishermen to kill more of them.”
Increasing the sea turtle take will not only kill turtles, but also whales, dolphins, sharks and sea birds, according to Oceana.
Michael Tosatto, regional administrator for the fisheries service, a division of the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, said the statement is an exaggeration of what the increase allows.
“This is an incidental take, not equivalent to death,” Tosatto said. “Very few will equal death, and very few caught will be reproducing females.” The fishery is immediately closed when the turtle bycatch limit is reached.
As longline hooks drag the water for swordfish, sea turtles are sometimes snagged. Most are released, Tosatto said. “This year none were killed. One hundred percent were released alive. I think that has been the case the past several years.”
Loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles are endangered because they were hunted for their shells and meat, depleting populations that have yet to recover worldwide.
Their protection is weighed against Hawaii’s swordfish fishery, a $10 million to $20 million industry that is crucial to the island’s economy, providing 60 percent of the swordfish consumed nationwide.
The fisheries service has observers on boats who know what happens to captured turtles, Tosatto said. The biological information gathered shows fishing is not depleting them.
“Obviously these remain endangered species. We know they’re at risk,” Tosatto said. “We know how many of these animals interact with our vessels, how many are hooked, and what that means.”