New Fishing Hooks May Spare Sea Turtles

Leatherback turtles, an endangered species, can grow to more than 8 feet

Leatherback turtles, an endangered species, can grow to more than 8 feet and swim all the way across ocean basins. World Wildlife Fund hide caption

itoggle caption World Wildlife Fund

Fishing gear that claims to spare rare sea turtles has prompted federal officials to consider ending the ban on long-line fishing off the coast of California. Some environmentalists are hailing the change; others say there's no proof it will work.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The Bush administration may be about to lift a ban on long-line fishing off the coast of California. That ban and others were put into place to protect extremely rare sea turtles. As NPR's John Nielsen reports, a new kind of fishing hook has prompted the change in policy.

JOHN NIELSEN reporting:

Long-line fishing boats that drag tens of thousands of baited hooks behind them are the reason it's still fairly easy to buy swordfish and tuna at your local grocery store. Unfortunately, they're also one of the reasons sea turtles around the world are disappearing. Turtles that bite down on the J-shaped hooks on these lines are pulled beneath the water and drowned. Robert Ovetz, a marine biologist with the non-profit Sea Turtle Restoration Project, says the giant leatherback sea turtles could go extinct in the next five to 30 years.

Mr. ROBERT OVETZ (Marine Biologist, Sea Turtle Restoration Project): Its female nesting population has declined by 95 percent since 1980, so we're looking at a crisis situation of this species going extinct in the Pacific.

NIELSEN: Back in 1999, Ovetz's group filed a save-the-turtle lawsuit that forced the National Marine Fisheries Service to ban long-line fishing near Hawaii. Other bans have forced long-line fishermen out of parts of the Pacific near the coast of California and out of the Northeastern Atlantic. When the bans went into place, government scientists and commercial fishermen began testing nets and lines that had been altered to save turtles, however. Rebecca Lent is deputy administrator for fisheries at NOAA.

Ms. REBECCA LENT (Deputy Administrator for Fisheries, NOAA): We hired some boats, and we put a scientist on each boat, and we made a list of things that we were going to test. And we had the long-liners operate basically in pairs, or in sets, so that we could compare traditional gear side by side with the altered gear.

NIELSEN: Last year NOAA officials announced that when long-liners used bigger, rounder hooks, they reduced turtle deaths by as much as 90 percent without reducing the legal swordfish and tuna catch. Because those hooks worked, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lifted bans on long-line fishing in the North Atlantic and in parts of the Pacific near Hawaii provided long-line boats use only the circle hooks. A ban on long-line fishing off the coast of California may be lifted next, says Lent.

Ms. LENT: In the meantime, they still have huge closed areas. Obviously, those long-liners based in California would rather have the circle hook option than to be closed out of certain areas.

NIELSEN: But marine biologists, like Robert Ovetz of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, say they're more than a little rattled by the speed with which the circle hook technofix has been used to reopen fisheries, especially since the industry data being used to support this move has yet to be published. He thinks NOAA is gambling with the future of sea turtles, and he thinks the turtles are going to lose.

Mr. OVETZ: NOAA has committed the leatherback to extinction.

NIELSEN: Spokesmen for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say the data on circle hooks could be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal by the end of the year. They say they took action ahead of that publication, in part, because they're trying to convince foreign long-line fleets to switch to circle hooks before it's too late for the turtles. John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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