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2004-11-19 16:22:55

US Should Call for End of Pacific Longline Fishing

Longline fishing for swordfish and tuna has sent the Pacific leatherback sea turtle careening towards extinction.

This week's decision by the US government to close the last 1,500 mile of the US Pacific to longline fishing does more than close a loophole flaunted by longline vessels shut out of Hawaiian waters since 1999. It offers a powerful example of efforts to protect the Pacific leatherback sea turtle that the US can and should demonstrate to the rest of the world.

Longline fishing for swordfish and tuna has sent the Pacific leatherback sea turtle careening towards extinction. Its female nesting population has collapsed by about 97% in the past 23 years and is threatened with extinction within the next decade, scientists warn, unless we take action to reverse its freefall.

This closure is exactly the kind of action needed. Faced with a minefield of more than 5 million hooks per day and nearly 1 billion per year throughout the Pacific, these closures give the leatherback significant breathing room to survive its ancient migration and breeding ritual on both sides of the Pacific.

That's why it would be not only tragic but irresponsible for the US to reverse its position and reopen Hawaiian waters to the very same two dozen longliners that fled to California to evade the law four years ago. Doing so would only continue to reward corrupt behavior.

This corrupt behavior is not an isolated event. Investigating corruption at the highest levels of the longliner dominated Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council, a recent report by the Cascadia Times warned that "the cats are running the fishhouse." The council was created by law to conserve and protect our shared ocean resources yet remains exempt from federal conflict of interest laws.

This exemption is the next loophole that needs to be closed.

Reopening the US Pacific would inflict a second tragedy -- this time on the US people. It would inflict harm upon nursing mothers, children and the elderly by promoting the continued consumption of swordfish and tuna poisoned by methylmercury, a deadly neurotoxin. Much of the US population is already alarmed by this danger and is being urged to reduce their consumption of swordfish, tuna and shark. While the FDA is in the process of improving their mercury in seafood warning, a great deal more is still needed to inform us of the dangers.

With its Pacific waters closed to longlining, the US has the moral high ground to persuade the 40 other longlining nations to follow our lead and impose a moratorium on longline fishing in the Pacific. Saving the Pacific leatherback will require more than new hooks and bait. A multinational effort is needed immediately if the 100 million year old leatherback is to survive the next few decades.

In the past year, more than 400 international scientists from 40 countries including the famed biologist E. O. Wilson have called on the US government and the United Nations to implement a Pacific-wide moratorium. A moratorium would keep the leatherback and the 4 million other whales, dolphins, sharks, sea birds, sea lions, and billfish annually maimed and killed by longlines out of harms way. This past week the UN Food and Agriculture Organization convened a meeting of top international marine biologists to find a solution to the slaughter of sea turtles in the Pacific.

The US has already found it. Let's make sure it doesn't waver from its course.

Sea Turtle Restoration Project in California

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