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Increase in turtle catch limits prompts suit

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A new federal rule that changes the limits on the number of sea turtles, including the loggerhead turtle, that can accidentally be caught by longline fishers has led to a lawsuit by two conservation groups.

Two conservation groups filed a lawsuit Friday challenging a new federal rule that nearly doubles limits on how many endangered sea turtles Hawaii’s longline swordfish fishery can accidentally hook before being shut down.

The lawsuit alleges that the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act when it used an inadequate biological opinion that substantially increased the number of endangered sea turtles that can be incidentally caught.

The conservation groups accuse the NMFS of rolling back protections that capped the number of sea turtles that could be caught at 17 endangered loggerheads and 16 endangered leatherbacks.

Under the new rule issued in October and going into effect Monday, 34 loggerhead and 26 leatherback turtles can be incidentally caught before the fishery would be forced to shut down.

"They are both on a trajectory to go extinct eventually, and being caught in fisheries is well-known to be a major cause," said lawyer Paul Achitoff with Earthjustice, the law firm that filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Hono­lulu on behalf of Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Center for Biological Diversity.

The fishery experienced mandatory shutdowns in 2006 and 2011.

Wende Goo, spokes­woman for NOAA Fisheries, Pacific Islands Region, said the agency had not yet received the lawsuit, but planned to review it.

The agency has about two months to respond, Achitoff said.

When the shallow-set longline fishery spreads out 60 miles of fishing line, with as many as 1,000 baited hooks attached and gear suspended near the surface of the water, it results in untold numbers of sea turtles, dolphins and seabirds being killed, said Todd Steiner, Turtle Island Restoration Network executive director.

Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said sea turtles will soon be extinct unless they are protected from drowning in fishing gear.

"It’s tragic that these large commercial fisheries are killing animals by the thousands for the sake of a few profitable swordfish," she said in a statement.

The suit also challenges a permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in August that allows longliners to catch Laysan and black-footed albatross without requiring measures that could lessen the number of birds killed. The permit allows up to 191 black-footed albatross and 430 Laysan albatrosses to be incidentally caught over three years.

Achitoff said if fishing line were dispensed from the sides of the longliners instead of off the back, it could result in far fewer seabird deaths. With side-setting of line, by the time the baited hooks reach the back of boats where seabirds have access to them, they have sunk low enough in the water to be out of reach, he said.

"We want the fisheries to be required to use the best available technology to minimize the catching of these birds," he said.

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