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Court Rules Against Long-Line Fishing, Citing Danger to Turtles

August 23, 2003|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

A U.S. appeals court has ruled that federal officials must determine if California's long-line fishing fleet is harming endangered sea turtles before it permits any of these fishermen to continue unfurling lines that stretch 20 miles or more with baited hooks to catch swordfish.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeal on Thursday overturned a lower court decision and ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to assess the impact of the long-line fishery on endangered sea turtles -- especially the leatherback sea turtle, which is plunging toward extinction.

About three dozen long-line boats now fish for swordfish in international waters 200 miles or more off the coast of California.

Nearly all of these boats used to operate near Hawaii, but were shut down a few years ago when environmental groups filed a similar lawsuit that forced federal officials to assess their impact on sea turtles.

"We are committed to closing this loophole," said Brendan Cummings, an attorney with the Oakland-based Center for Biological Diversity. "We don't believe that a fishery that has been ruled as too destructive to exist off Hawaii should be allowed to continue off California."

The National Marine Fisheries Service declined to speculate on the impact of the ruling. "Our attorneys will have to study the court decision before we can comment on it," said spokesman Jim Milbury.

But Earthjustice attorney Deborah Sivas, representing the Turtle Island Restoration Network, said she expected the conservation groups will either seek a federal injunction to halt the long-line boats from resuming fishing this fall or ask federal officials to simply stop them until it satisfies the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

Long-line fishermen do not target sea turtles. Instead, these air-breathing reptiles get snagged by the hooks on the lines, which are placed near the surface and marked at night with light sticks.

Scientists fear that leatherback turtles will go extinct in the Pacific within 10 to 30 years unless long-line practices are changed. They are also concerned about drownings of green, loggerhead and olive ridley sea turtles.

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