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Feds plan to loosen protections on endangered sea turtles

June 22, 2009 |  5:15 pm

Turtle  

Conservation groups are challenging a proposal by the National Marine Fisheries Service to allow the long-line swordfish industry near Hawaii to kill or injure almost three times as many loggerhead sea turtles as it currently ensnares in fishing lines. Swordfish lines, which stretch up to 60 miles, can ensnare and injure sea turtles and other marine creatures as they trail through the open ocean.

Fewer turtles will reach the U.S. West Coast, as a result, environmentalists warn. Loggerhead sea turtles, which journey from nests in Japan, are sometimes seen off the Southern California coast, where they feed on mollusks and crustaceans, says Andrea Treece, an attorney with San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity.

Leatherback sea turtles journey thousands of miles from their nesting places in Indonesia to feed on the plentiful jellyfish supply along the coast of Oregon and Northern and Central California, says Treece.

"These are turtles that we all kind of share, and root for, and care about," Treece says.

The proposal marks the next chapter in a struggle between conservation groups and long-line fishermen to sway the National Marine Fisheries Service. A lawsuit waged by environmental groups in 1999 led the Hawaii fishery to close down from 2001 to 2004. At the time, the fishery was trapping hundreds of sea turtles a year in their lines, according to Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff.

In 2004, the fishery reopened with new turtle-protecting regulations in place, Achitoff says. Fishermen used circular hooks and were limited in the number of times they could cast out their lines. Under the 2004 regulations, the fishery had to shut down if it caught 16 leatherbacks or 17 loggerheads. Now, proposed changes would allow the fleet to catch 46 loggerheads before shutting down, and would do away with the limit on the number of times boats could cast lines. The number of leatherbacks that could be caught would stay at 16.

Both loggerheads and leatherbacks are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Loggerheads are classified as threatened, and leatherbacks are classified as endangered.

The public has until Aug. 3 to comment on the proposed changes online here. (Note: An earlier version of this post said the deadline was Aug. 10.)

-- Amy Littlefield

Photo: A baby leatherback sea turtle crawls for the water on the Costa Rican shore. Credit: Ken Weiss/Los Angeles Times

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