Loggerhead sea turtle. Photo courtesy NMFS.

HONOLULU (9 August 2019) The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council met yesterday to amend the Pelagic Fishery Ecosystem Plan with revisions to the loggerhead and leatherback turtle mitigation measures for the Hawai’i shallow-set longline fishery. The amendment sets an annual fleet-wide hard cap limit on the number of leatherback turtle interactions at 16. An interaction occurs whenever a sea turtle becomes hooked or entangled in longline gear. Few interactions lead to serious injury or mortality of the animal, which is normally released unharmed. The Council did not recommend setting an annual fleet-wide hard cap for loggerheads in light of that species’ improving population trends and other mitigation measures, but the Council retains the authority to set a hard cap limit in the future if necessary.
To limit the impact of interactions on sea turtles and to promote year-round fishing opportunities, the Council further recommended the establishment of individual trip interaction limits of five loggerheads and two leatherback turtles. Once a vessel reaches either of these trip limits, the vessel is required to return to port, and will be prohibited from engaging in shallow-set longline fishing for five days after returning. This action is expected to allow sea turtle “hot spots” to disperse, while encouraging fishermen to take action to avoid sea turtle interactions before the trip limits are reached.
Additional restrictions set trip limits on each vessel – any vessel that reaches the trip limit twice for either leatherback or loggerhead sea turtles in a calendar year will be prohibited from shallow-set longline fishing for the remainder of that year. The following calendar year, these vessels will have an annual vessel limit equivalent to a single trip limit – either five loggerheads or two leatherbacks. These additional vessel restrictions are measures required under a new biological opinion (BiOp) prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).
In the Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee report, the Committee noted that in light of the BiOp finding that the fishery does not jeopardize the continued existence of these sea turtles, the additional restrictions are punitive and are not supported by the scientific information that the fishery has no adverse impacts to the overall loggerhead and leatherback populations.
NMFS Pacific Islands Regional Office Regional Administrator Michael Tosatto reminded the Council that it is their “mandate to minimize interactions with protected species…minimize means approach zero.”
“You’ve heard the expression barking up the wrong tree – we’re swimming in the wrong ocean,” said Council member Ed Watamura, pointing to the disproportionate impact that the Hawai’i fleet experiences from the US government’s strict regulations. With almost 100 percent of the incidentally hooked turtles returning to the ocean alive, the Hawai’i swordfish fishery has had negligible impact on the leatherback and loggerhead turtle populations in the Pacific Ocean, especially when considering the relative impacts from foreign fleets. Threats to loggerhead and leatherback turtles in other parts of the populations’ range include bycatch in artisanal and coastal fisheries in the Western Pacific, direct harvesting of eggs and adult turtles, nest predation by feral animals, beach nesting habitat alteration, and climate change.
The Council did not recommend setting a fleet-wide interaction limit for loggerhead turtles, recognizing that the status of the population has improved since the Council first recommended implementing hard caps for the shallow-set longline fishery in 2004. A recent population assessment of the North Pacific loggerhead turtles showed that the population is growing at an annual rate of 2.4 percent, and the total is estimated at 340,000 individuals. Considering this population growth and the additional restrictions on trip limits, the Council found that the fleet-wide hard cap limit for loggerhead turtles is no longer necessary or appropriate to conserve the species.
Final action taken yesterday by the Council was a culmination of a nearly two-year process to improve measures for managing loggerhead and leatherback turtle interactions in the fishery that produces nearly half of the US domestic swordfish. The process was stalled for nearly a year due to NMFS’ delay in completing the new BiOp, which was originally scheduled to be completed in October 2018. The Council’s final recommendation will be forwarded to the Secretary of Commerce, followed by a rule making process including a public comment period.
Under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, the Council has authority over fisheries seaward of state waters of Hawai’i, American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and the US Pacific Remote Islands.
For the meeting agenda and background materials, go to www.wpcouncil.org or contact the Council at info@wpcouncil.org or (808) 522-8220.
Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council: Secretary of Commerce appointees from nominees selected by American Samoa, CNMI, Guam and Hawai'i governors: Archie Soliai, StarKist (American Samoa) (chair); Christinna Lutu-Sanchez, commercial fisherman (American Samoa) (vice chair); John Gourley, Micronesian Environmental Services (CNMI) (vice chair); Michael Duenas, Guam Fishermen's Cooperative Association (Guam) (vice chair); Dean Sensui, Hawaii Goes Fishing (Hawai'i) (vice chair); Michael Goto, United Fishing Agency (Hawai'i); Edwin Watamura, Waialua Boat Club (Hawai'i); McGrew Rice, charter boat captain (CNMI). Designated state officials: Raymond Roberto, CNMI Dept. of Lands and Natural Resources; Suzanne Case, Hawai'i Dept. of Land & Natural Resources; Chelsa Muña-Brecht, Guam Dept. of Agriculture; Henry Sesepasara, American Samoa Dept. of Marine & Wildlife Resources. Designated federal officials (voting): Michael Tosatto, NMFS Pacific Islands Regional Office. Designated federal officials (non-voting): RADM Kevin Lunday, USCG 14th District; Michael Brakke, US Department of State; Brian Peck, USFWS.