Environmental groups sue to protect leatherback turtles

Lawsuit alleges Trump administration is violating the Endangered Species Act by permitting use of longlines.

SAN FRANCISCO—The Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network filed a joint lawsuit against the Trump administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service, claiming the issuance of two longline permits off the coast of California violated the Endangered Species Act – particularly with respect to its protected leatherback turtles.

The lawsuit was filed June 6 in a federal court for the Northern District of California. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and the National Marine Fisheries Service were the two parties named in the complaint.

The California state government for decades prohibited longlines; the National Marine Fisheries Service joined the party in 2004, but earlier this year, issued two permits to vessels using longlines.

The Endangered Species Act lists the following as endangered: Pacific Leatherback sea turtles, olive ridley sea turtles and the North Pacific Ocean distinct population segment of loggerhead sea turtles.

The National Marine Fisheries Service designated almost 17,000 square miles of ocean off the California coast as a leatherback turtle critical habitat, according to the lawsuit.

“Fishing for swordfish and tuna with longlines is banned by both the Fisheries Service … and California law … to protect sea turtles from being incidentally caught on hooks,” the lawsuit stated. “The existing swordfish fishery off California uses mile-long drift gillnets and has a long, embattled history of taking endangered sea turtles and marine mammals. Large area closures and mitigation measures are in place for the swordfish drift gillnet fishery to reduce bycatch … of sea turtles and marine mammals.”

The federal prohibition on longlines went into effect in 2004 to help address mitigation efforts that were falling short, according to the lawsuit.

“Longlines,” according to the lawsuit, “float horizontally in the water for up to 60 miles in length with a thousand hooks dangling in the Pacific Ocean.

“Industrial longline fishing has pushed sea turtles toward extinction, while also decimating seabirds and marine mammals,” the lawsuit continued. “This year the Fisheries Service has authorized longlines in waters off California currently protected for leatherback conservation.

Attorneys for the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network stated the Pacific Leatherback sea turtles are in great peril and could be extinct by or before 2040.

“Pacific Leatherback sea turtles are among the most imperiled of U.S. marine animals and have experienced an alarming decades-long decline. Scientists predict the Pacific leatherback may be effectively extinct within 20 years if current trends continue,” the lawsuit against Ross and the National Marine Fisheries Service stated. “Leatherback sea turtles face numerous, ongoing threats in the ocean waters off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington, including incidental capture, injury, and death by commercial fishing gear.

“The failure of the Fisheries Service to comply with environmental laws in issuing the Permit diminishes leatherback sea turtles’ slim chance to defy predictions of extinction,” the lawsuit continued.

The West Pacific leatherback population declined at a rate of six percent per year between the 1980s and 2011, according to the lawsuit.

“There are now only an estimated 562 female, nesting adults in the population, assuming the decades-long annual declining trend has continued since 2011,” the lawsuit stated. “Based on that trend, scientists predicted in 2013 that there would be about 260 adult females in 2040, i.e. a population so low that leatherbacks could not make a comeback.”

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