NOAA Amendment Removes Swordfishing Restrictions After Study Finds Most Sea Turtle Interactions Non-lethal

December 10, 2009

Loggerhead sea turtle.

Loggerhead sea turtle.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

NOAA’s Fisheries Service today removed restrictions on the number of gear deployments by the Hawaii swordfish fleet after four years of study found sea turtle protections are working and most interactions between the fleet and loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles are non-lethal.

Since 2004, NOAA has required the Hawaii-based shallow-set longline fishery to operate with measures to protect sea turtles, including having observers and satellite tracking systems on every vessel, using circle hooks that allow sea turtles to unsnare easily, using mackerel-type bait rather than squid, and following sea turtle handling protocols that increase the chance of survival.

The observers, who are required on every swordfish fishing trip, monitor fishing activities and determine the health of sea turtles that are caught unintentionally during fishing operations.

Four years of study by NOAA scientists have shown that an increase in fishing effort will not adversely affect the long-term recovery of the sea turtles.

According to NOAA scientists, most unintended interactions are non-lethal. With this and other new information, a biological opinion by NOAA’s Fisheries Service concluded that if fishing effort were to reach historical levels under the final rule, 46 interactions with loggerhead turtles could be expected, with no more than three adult female mortalities. This is about the same as natural mortality rates. NOAA has determined that the level of interaction expected as a result of this final rule is not likely to jeopardize the continued survival and recovery of loggerhead and leatherback turtles. Today’s final rule sets annual interaction limits (hooking or entanglement) of 46 loggerhead and 16 leatherback turtles. So far in 2009, only three loggerhead and seven leatherback turtles have interacted with the swordfish fishery.

Currently, all swordfish vessels are limited to a combined 2,120 gear deployments or sets each year. This is about half of the annual fishing effort that was conducted by the fleet in the late 1990s.

The North Pacific swordfish stocks are healthy, and the combined U.S. and foreign fisheries are operating at only about 65 percent of the maximum sustainable yield, allowing for the increase in fishing.

The 2004 restrictions were implemented as a precautionary measure to protect loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles being caught as bycatch, using the best available scientific and fishery information at the time.

Given the success of the NOAA regulations on limiting interactions with sea turtles and other protected species, the new rule provides the U.S. fishery with increased fishing opportunities to harvest swordfish sustainably, and has demonstrated safeguards for protecting protected species.

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