Sea Turtles Resurface

Chanting “Get on the right track — stop killing the leatherback!,” a festive protest of people of many ages dressed in colorful turtle costumes wound its way along the busy streets of San Francisco’s Fishermen’s Wharf. The action this past October marked the launching of the Bay Area-based Sea Turtle Restoration Project’s (STRP) Save the Leatherback campaign for a moratorium on longline fishing in the Pacific Ocean. Longline fishing in the Pacific kills tens of thousands of sea turtles annually to serve up swordfish, shark and tuna poisoned with high levels of methylmercury for lucrative seafood markets in Japan, the US and Europe.

Longlines are the greatest threat to sea turtles, maiming and killing as many as 40,000 each year. Having once swum with the dinosaurs, the more than 100 million year old leatherback now hangs by a thread at the threshold of extinction. The campaign to save it is at the heart of a concerted international effort to end the pillaging of the oceans and needless slaughter of millions of marine species by industrial fishing, while also sounding the alarm about the threat of methylmercury poisoning to people who eat swordfish and other predatory fish.

The Ancient Leatherback

The leatherback sea turtle is the dean of the seven species of sea turtles. Weighing up to 2000 pounds and reaching as much as nine feet in length, the leatherback has a unique external anatomy characterized by a leathery shell composed of skin overlying a mosaic of thin bony plates. The Pacific leatherback takes up to 15 years to mature and returns to the same beach where it hatched. To get there, a single leatherback follows a complex migration route stretching thousands of miles each year back and forth across the entire Pacific Ocean.

Because leatherbacks feed on jellyfish near the surface, they are extremely vulnerable to both swordfish and tuna longlining, both of which are conducted in relatively shallow pelagic (i.e. high seas) water. The rapid explosion of longlines since the 1970s has devastated the leatherback. Estimates of nesting females illuminate a terrifying collapse in the leatherback population — 95% in the last two decades. This nose-dive has aroused widespread international support for immediate action to stop the extinction crisis.

Reversing the Decline

STRP’s Save the Leatherback campaign is undertaking a broad array of initiatives including taking direct action, pursuing strategic legal action, advocating for a UN moratorium on Pacific longlining, educating seafood consumers about the impact of mercury poisoning, and undertaking media and advertising campaigns. STRP achieved its first significant victory when the Red Lobster chain dropped swordfish from the menus of its approximately 500 restaurants in response to a year-long petition drive. We are using this momentum to pressure other high-profile swordfish sellers through the threat of a lawsuit against the Safeway, Kroger’s, Albertson’s and Whole Foods supermarket conglomerates.

STRP teamed up with the San Francisco-based As You Sow Foundation in November, 2002, to conduct laboratory tests of swordfish sold in the five major supermarket chains. When the results turned up alarming mercury levels — as much as twice the level recommend by the US Food and Drug Administration — STRP filed a notice of intent to sue the supermarkets and Red Lobster under California’s Proposition 65, a 1986 “right to know” law which includes a clause requiring the posting of public warnings about toxics in food.

With this evidence in hand, the California Attorney’s General office filed the lawsuit itself in February 2003. To settle the suit, an interim legal agreement between the parties stipulates that stores will post signs warning of the dangers of consuming seafood containing methylmercury, especially swordfish, shark, tuna, king mackerel and tilefish.

The presence of methylmercury in predatory seafood species has garnered extensive international media coverage and public attention in the past few years. Fear of methylmercury poisoning in seafood led to the collapse of the seafood market in Hong Kong in November 2003. Paradoxically, the Japanese government has issued public health warnings about mercury in whale and dolphin meat even while it encourages the hunting of these two species for meat. Thanks to coal burning power plants, the largest emitters of mercury into the atmosphere that is transformed into methylmercury in the ocean, methylmercury continues to rapidly accumulate up the marine food chain right onto our plates.

Predatory fish accumulate methylmercury levels considered unsafe for consumption even by US government standards. Swordfish contains mercury levels that are 500 percent higher, on the average, than levels considered safe by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Not surprisingly, because the EPA’s allowable concentration of methylmercury is five times lower than that allowed by the FDA, powerful industry lobbyist organizations such as the National Fisheries Institute are pushing a standardization of health regulations in line with the more lenient FDA mercury toxicity levels.

The continued marketing of methylmercury tainted seafood raises deeper issues of corporate influence over government public health regulations as well as emissions from coal burning power plants and automobiles, the two largest sources of methylmercury. As documented by a “Now with Bill Moyers” investigation on PBS in August 2003, industry lobbyists such as the US Tuna Foundation have watered down inspections and talked the FDA into removing tuna from their warning that states, “swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish (also known as golden snapper) contain enough mercury to affect the central nervous system and harm developing fetuses. Pregnant and nursing women, women who might become pregnant and young children should not eat these fish.” At the same time, the Bush administration is sabotaging long awaited reductions in emissions of mercury and other pollutants from the energy industry and auto manufacturers with his so-called “Clear Skies” initiative.

STRP’s emphasis on bringing together the health and environmental impacts of top predatory fish breaks new ground. It brings together new allies working on pollution, nutrition, public health, ocean, animal, fishing and reproductive campaigns to address issues that may have once seemed separate and unconnected. The emphasis on reducing consumer demand for top-of-the-food-chain seafood can help reduce demand by the world’s second largest importer of swordfish in order to reduce the fishing effort and give some breathing room for the leatherback. When demand is forced down, the incentive for continuing destructive and unprofitable longline fishing practice will decline.

Cutting the Longline

At a weekend of direct action protests at the National Fisheries Institute’s (NFI) October national conference and International West Coast Seafood Show in Long Beach California, STRP activists successfully evaded extensive efforts to censor protest. Over the course of the weekend, activists confronted swordfish dealers inside the seafood show who had refused requests to drop the fish from their inventories, hung door hangers reading “Do Not Disturb the Oceans” throughout the five largest hotels where conference and seafood show guests were staying and unfurled a massive banner reading “Swordfishing Kills Sea Turtles” at both the start of the Long Beach Marathon and the exclusive sea food show opening night gala on the Queen Mary cruise ship.

NFI was chosen as a campaign target for its role as an official advisor to the US Trade Representative. The industry lobbying group is pushing for a disastrous expansion of WTO authority over the oceans. It is also using its political clout to subvert eco-labeling, promote longlining and oppose a planned “country of origin labeling” law. NFI’s shameless promotion of cheap imported aquaculture drove US shrimper organizations to quit NFI in protest in October 2003 to pursue a trade embargo.

The longline industry has a lot to fear from the campaign. A 1999 lawsuit filed by STRP and Earthjustice closed two million square miles of territorial waters around Hawaii to Hawaiian swordfish longliners. The US district court judge found that the National Marine Fisheries Service was not doing enough to enforce protections for sea turtles dying on the longlines. When about three dozen Hawaiian longliners relocated to California waters to exploit a loophole in the ruling, the two organizations responded with another lawsuit seeking an injunction to stop longlining once and for all. Legislation is pending in California to ban all longlining.

Saving our oceans from senseless destruction is increasingly gaining steam among as wide a field as the Pew Oceans Commission (which released its report in summer 2003) and the infamous direct action oriented Sea Shepherd.

In fall 2003, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages West Coast fisheries, surprisingly submitted a Fishery Management Plan. At the heart of the plan is a ban on swordfish and tuna fishing in Pacific territorial waters stretching 200 miles.

This emerging consensus is based on a combination of solid marine biology research, activist pressure, and a hefty dose of commonsense. Swordfish are caught using industrial longlines composed of invisible monofilament lines up to 60 miles long and carrying thousands of baited hooks. Each year, longlines float billions of hooks in the Pacific alone. It is a wasteful, indiscriminate fishing method that maims and kills more than 4 million sea turtles, sharks, sea birds, whales, dolphins, porpoises, billfish (such as blue marlin), sea lions and countless other marine species annually. According to a recent stunning Word Wildlife Fund report, about 1,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises are killed each day as bycatch from longline and other fishing methods. In total, 20 to 40 percent of the longline catch is thrown back as so-called “bycatch,” marine life with little or no commercial value. Bycatch rates are even higher for shrimp trawling, reaching as much as twenty times the shrimp caught, including an estimated 150,000 sea turtles in the tropics alone.

Bycatch is also a huge problem for fishers targeting other commercial fish. For example, nearly one half of the swordfish catch is bycatch from tuna fishing and often allowed to be brought to shore.

Bycatch and greed have left swordfish stocks teetering back and forth on the precipice of collapse for the past two decades. The average fish size of more than 300 pounds only a few decades ago (up to 1000 pounds!) have been eclipsed by catches of pre-reproductive juveniles, commonly weighing less than 90 pounds.

The problems plaguing the swordfish population are a microcosm of the larger eco-systemic collapse underway. A study published in “Nature” in September 2003 found that about 90% of our fisheries are close to or already over depleted. It was followed by a November “Science” article warning that fish stocks face extinction within the next 4 decades.

Refuting industry claims that some fisheries are on the rebound, another Nature study in the same year pointed out that an industrial fishery can “typically reduce community biomass by 80% in 15 years of exploitation.” The authors estimated that “large predatory fish biomass is only about 10% of pre-industrial levels.” These historical trends are revealing. “Rebounds” trumpeted by the fishing industry are in actuality a game that the Ocean Conservancy calls “shifting baselines” in which short-term recoveries provide a dishonest picture of real historical declines.

Shifting baselines cannot detract from the impact such a collapse will have on the estimated 1 billion people that rely on primarily small scale fishing for their subsistence livelihoods and protein source. In Chile and the Philippines, for example, subsistence fishers are being pushed out by the privatization of their fisheries as a means to repay international debts. Local access rights are being sold to subsidized foreign industrial fishing vessels exporting to lucrative US, EU and Japanese consumer markets. These industrial fish factories move onto greener waters when they’ve collapsed a fishery, leaving local populations without income and access to affordable local seafood. At the same time, fishers in the consuming countries are being driven out of business in droves by “cheap” imported fish with huge hidden environmental and social costs.

The international character of the ocean crisis caused by industrial fishing requires international action. In many cases, local solutions are not forthcoming because fisheries management agencies encourage privatization, industrial fishing, and industry self-regulation. Add to that international treaties and conventions that fail to restrain corporate fishing operations and we have a crisis.

With the UN set to increasingly take up the issue of ocean conservation in 2004, starting with efforts to condemn shark finning and encourage an end to the bycatch of target and non-target species in a November 2003 resolution, it is critical that the agenda include a moratorium on longlining. The impact of longlining on the ocean and marine life is comparable to the massive slaughter inflicted by driftnets until they were effectively banned from international waters by the UN in 1991. A UN longline moratorium would be modeled after this successful UN moratorium on driftnet fishing.

Dr. Robert Ovetz is a Marine Species Campaigner with the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.Sign STRP’s petition calling for a UN moratorium at Also see Contact Robert at: