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Federal court stops longline fishing to protect turtles off California coast

A new court decision protects leatherback sea turtles by suspending longline fishing, which can entangle the animals.
A new court decision protects leatherback sea turtles by suspending longline fishing, which can entangle the animals.
(Daniel Evans / Caribbean Conservation Corp.)

Longline fishing won’t be allowed off the California coast after a federal district court suspended permits for the fishing method.

In December, the court struck down longline fishing permits that the National Marine Fisheries Service issued last spring, ruling that the service didn’t properly analyze threats to critically endangered leatherback sea turtles.

“The permits were vacated by the court, so the permits are no longer in effect,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed a lawsuit with Turtle Island Restoration Network to challenge the permits.

The National Marine Fisheries Service declined to comment on the case while it analyzes the decision, spokesman Jim Milbury said.

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Longline fishing involves dragging lines stretching up to 60 miles behind vessels. Those lines often snare non-target catch, including marine mammals, sea turtles and unwanted fish. Sea turtles become hooked while trying to take longline bait or become entangled while swimming through the walls of lines and hooks, the environmental groups said. That can drown the turtles or leave them fatally injured.

The longline fishery has been closed off the California coast since 2004, but the service issued two permits in April. The permit would have shut down the fishery if the fishing lines caught three live turtles, or brought in one dead one, Kilduff said. But environmental groups said even one death of the imperiled species could harm its chance of recovery. They argued that the critically low populations of leatherback sea turtles left no margin of error for accidental deaths.

“The more endangered they are, the less flexibility the government has to permit activities that kill the animals,” said Todd Steiner, a biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network.

The court agreed, ruling that the agency didn’t properly analyze threats to the turtles before issuing the permits, as required by the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act.

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The court decision marks a final victory for conservation groups during a year in which regulators took action to clean up West Coast fisheries by approving new gear to reduce unwanted catch and safeguarding delicate bottom habitat.

“This is great news for leatherback sea turtles because the court recognized how imperiled they are, and how important this particular habitat off California is for them during the months that they’re there,” Kilduff said. “It really gives them a chance to defy the predictions for extinction.”

Sullivan Brennan writes for the San Diego Union Tribune.


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