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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Proposed Ban on Hawaii Fishery

Air Date: Week of

A federal judge in Hawaii is threatening a massive fishing ban to save the leatherback turtle from extinction. Host Diane Toomey talks with Chicago Tribune reporter Judith Graham about the judge's order and reaction to it.


TOOMEY: Hawaii's fishing industry is up in arms after a federal judge says he's closing six-and-a-half million square miles of Pacific waters to the state's long-line fishing fleet. Judge David Ezra's ruling came after environmental groups sued the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to manage the fleet to protect leatherback turtles on the brink of extinction. Reporter Judith Graham was in Hawaii recently, covering the story for the Chicago Tribune. I asked her to explain why long-line fishing endangers turtles.

GRAHAM: Well, this is deep sea fishing, so the boats go out pretty far from shore, typically more than 75 miles. They cast an extraordinarily long line, at least 20 miles, sometimes as long as 40 miles. And there are branches of line off of this line. Every couple hundred feet or so, they bait hooks, and then they wait to catch whatever comes along. The primary targets in the Hawaiian waters are tuna and swordfish, but they also end up catching, because it's indiscriminate, whatever happens to come up and bite the hook or be injured by the hook. They catch albatross, shark, and turtles.

TOOMEY: Twenty miles of line. It's hard for me to even envision that, I think.

GRAHAM: Try this on for size. The number of baited hooks in the Hawaiian fleet -- we're talking about 115 vessels -- on a yearly basis is more than 16 million hooks a year. That's a lot of hooks catching a lot of stuff going by.

TOOMEY: So, does the judge's order allow for any kind of long-line fishing, or are we talking a out a total shutdown of this industry?

GRAHAM: The judge's ruling, and I should make this clear from the start, is in effect until the federal government can come up with a new environmental statement showing what's going on with the turtles. So, this is not a permanent ruling. Until that happens, and that analysis is due April of 2001, the entire fleet of 115 vessels can only fish 636 set days, and that's the equivalent of a fishing day, on a yearly basis. That's an extraordinarily -- I mean, it works out to about six days a vessel. And you have to compare it to the traditional level of about 12,000 set days a year for the fleet. It's a 95 percent reduction. So he's really put extraordinary limits on the fleet, but allowed them to continue to do some fishing in the southern portion.

TOOMEY: What kind of economic impact would this closure have on Hawaii?

GRAHAM: You have to think of the impact on the fishing fleet first, and there the estimates are they catch about $50 million worth of fish a year. Then beyond that there are all of the jobs that depend on the industry: the wholesalers, the retailers. And the estimates there are about $150 million worth of lost business. I think what grabs consumers more, though, is the argument that if this fleet is not fishing, there won't be as much fresh fish in Hawaii. The fish that will be there will have to be brought in from other places, sometimes frozen, and that its price will go up. So, for the average family which relies on fish as a source of food -- they eat twice as much fish there as they do on the mainland -- that can be a somewhat frightening prospect.

TOOMEY: If this ban holds, does this mean that all is well for the leatherback turtles?

GRAHAM: No. Hawaii's long-line fleet is much smaller than others in the Pacific. For instance, both Japan and Taiwan have fleets in excess of 1,500 vessels, compared to Hawaii's 115-vessel fleet. And they are free to come into the waters and fish, and many of these fisheries don't have the same concern for endangered species that Hawaii's fishermen do. So, the Hawaiian long-line fleet argue that because they are regulated by the United States and sensitive to the plight of the turtles, if they are not allowed to fish and other boats take their place, the situation will actually be worse for the turtles than it would be if they were fishing the waters. But the environmentalists on the other side say that, given the nature of the threat to these turtles which are 100 million years old, extraordinary creatures, we can't sit by and say, well, the situation appears hopeless, so nobody should do anything. Instead, the United States has to get out front, take a leadership position, say no, this will no longer be tolerated, and work actively for international agreements with other fleets and other nations to save these turtles.

TOOMEY: Judith Graham is a national correspondent with the Chicago Tribune. Judith, thanks for joining us today.

GRAHAM: Thank you.



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