100,000,000 years old… 10 years left to live

| 1st March 2003
It swam the oceans when dinosaurs walked the earth. Now our hunger for tuna means the Pacific leatherback turtle could be extinct within 10 years.

Dressed in brightly-coloured turtle costumes, a crowd of chanting protesters wound its way along the busy streets of San Francisco’s Fishermen’s Wharf. As the protesters marched and danced their way past the many harbourside restaurants lining the way, their chant rung out: ‘Get on the right track; stop killing the leatherback!’ Several bemused diners looked up from their meals, wondering how their overfilled plates of swordfish steak and tuna Niçoise could possibly have anything to do with the demise of a turtle.

They soon found out. October’s demonstration marked the launch of the California-based Sea Turtle Restoration Project’s (STRP) Save the Leatherback campaign for a moratorium on longline fishing in the Pacific Ocean.

Longlines are not ordinary fishing lines. The word ‘long’ does them a dis-service. They carry not one hook, but thousands, stretched out along an invisible mono-filament line up to 60 miles long. If I was sitting in my trawler on the Thames looking up at the Houses of Parliament, my longline would stretch all the way back out past Hampton Court, past Heathrow Airport, the M25, Windsor Castle, all the way out to Oxford. Or I could sit in a Glasgow shipyard and fish off the coast from Edinburgh, on the other side of Scotland.

Each year, longlines float tens of billions of hooks in the Pacific alone. They are used mainly to catch swordfish and tuna. While doing so, this wasteful, indiscriminate method of fishing maims and kills more than four million sea turtles, sharks, sea birds, whales, dolphins, porpoises, billfish (such as blue marlin), sea lions and countless other marine species.

Because Pacific leatherbacks feed on jellyfish near the surface of the sea, they are extremely vulnerable to swordfish and tuna longlining, both of which are conducted in relatively shallow high-seas water. The proliferation of longlines since the 1970s has devastated their population. Estimates of nesting females illuminate a terrifying collapse in leatherback numbers – 95 per cent in the last two decades.

Having once swum with the dinosaurs over 100 million years ago, the leatherback now hangs by a thread on the edge of extinction. In a 2000 article in the journal Nature, marine biologist James Spotila said that if longline fishing is not stopped the Pacific leatherback sea turtle will become extinct in five to 30 years’ time. The Save the Leatherback campaign is using a broad array of tactics to stop this happening.

Tactic 1: Target consumers

For many consumers, causing the probable extinction of a creature that has swum the world’s oceans for over 100 million years is not enough to stop them ordering swordfish or tuna from the menu. After all, oily fish is good for you: it’s full of omega-3 fatty acids. But what if swordfish really isn’t that healthy, if, in fact, it contains levels of mercury 500 per cent higher, on average, than levels considered safe by the US Environmental Protection Agency? What if even the US Food and Drug Administration warned children and women who are pregnant or of child-bearing age not to consume swordfish and other species high in mercury?


This is just what the Save the Leatherback campaign found when it teamed up with the San Francisco-based pressure group the As You Sow Foundation in November 2002, to conduct laboratory tests of swordfish sold in the US’s five major supermarket chains. STRP reacted to the alarming test results by filing a notice of intent to sue the supermarkets and the US restaurant chain Red Lobster; it invoked California’s Proposition 65, a 1986 ‘right to know’ law requiring businesses to post public warnings about toxic materials in food. California law allows the state’s Attorney General to seek penalties in excess of $1m if corporations fail to warn the public about mercury exposure.

With this evidence, the California Attorney General filed the lawsuit itself in February 2003. To settle the suit, an interim legal agreement stipulates that stores will post signs warning customers of the dangers of consuming mercury-contaminated seafood – especially swordfish, shark, tuna, king mackerel and tilefish.

Then last October, the campaign achieved a much more significant victory when Red Lobster dropped swordfish from its 500-odd North American restaurants in response to a year-long petition campaign.

STRP’s emphasis on linking the health and environmental impacts of eating big predatory fish breaks new ground. It has brought 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. By targeting the consumers of top-of-the-food-chain seafood, the campaign aims to squeeze down demand 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 will decline.

Tactic 2: Target business

But it wasn’t enough just to hope that business would respond to customers changing their habits. At the National Fisheries Institute’s (NFI) annual conference and International West Coast Seafood Show, both in Long Beach California last October, STRP activists confronted swordfish dealers who had refused requests to drop the fish from their inventories. They hung up door hangers reading ‘do not disturb the oceans’ throughout the five largest hotels where delegates were staying. And they infiltrated the seafood show’s exclusive opening night gala on the legendary Queen Mary cruise ship, dropping a banner reading ‘swordfishing kills sea turtles’ before being ejected (they had pulled off a similar drop at the starting line of the nearby Long Beach Marathon earlier the same day).

STRP targeted the NFI because of its role as an official adviser to the US Trade Representative, which describes itself as being ‘America’s chief trade negotiator and the principal trade policy adviser to the president’. The NFI is currently pushing for a disastrous expansion of WTO authority over the oceans. It is also using its political clout to subvert eco-labelling and sustainable fishing reforms and to promote longlining. (It unsuccessfully opposed planned ‘country of origin labelling’ legislation in the US.) The NFI’s shameless promotion of cheap imported aquaculture drove US shrimper organisations to quit the organisation in October 2003.

The longline industry has a lot to fear from the Save the Leatherback campaign. A 1999 lawsuit filed by STRP and the non-profit public interest law firm Earthjustice closed two million square miles of territorial waters around Hawaii to swordfish longliners there. The US district court judge found that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) was not doing enough to enforce protections for sea turtles dying on the longlines. When about three dozen Hawaiian longliners sought to exploit a loophole in the ruling by relocating to Californian waters, STRP and Earthjustice responded with another lawsuit seeking an injunction to stop longlining for good.

Tactic 3: Get government on board

Little by little, advocacy efforts are bringing the US government around as well. The Hawaii ruling led the NMFS to propose closing the US’s west coast to longlining in an attempt to prevent the leatherback’s continuing decline. While a decision on such a ban remains a hostage to political fortune, recreational fishermen have teamed up with Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter, who has submitted a bill to ban longlines in Californian waters. The state has already closed its waters to gillnets, and had a series of marine protected areas planned before new Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger intervened.

If these waters are to be closed it will be because of a combination of solid marine biology research and a hefty dose of common sense. Longlines are deadly to leatherbacks, humans and fish. In total, 20 to 40 per cent of the longline catch is thrown back as so-called ‘bycatch’: marine life with little or no commercial value. Bycatch also is a huge problem for recreational anglers and even fishermen targeting other commercial fish. For example, nearly half the swordfish catch is actually caught as bycatch; greed and bycatch have left swordfish fisheries on the brink of collapse for the past two decades. Only a few decades ago the average size of a swordfish was more than 300 pounds (individuals are known to have weighed as much as 1,000 pounds). Now most swordfish catches are primarily made up of juveniles that have not reached reproductive age and commonly weigh in at less than 90 pounds.

Tactic 4: Demand a UN moratorium

The international nature of this ocean crisis necessitates international action at the highest level. In many cases, local solutions are not forthcoming because fisheries management agencies encourage privatisation, industrial fishing, and industry self-regulation. Furthermore, the international treaties and conventions that do currently exist lack teeth, adequate ratification, funding and political muscle.

UN intervention is, therefore, critical to saving the Pacific leatherback. The UN is set to increasingly take up the issue of ocean conservation this year. Last November the UN General Assembly passed a non-binding resolution calling for a ban on shark finning (the slaughter of sharks for their fins) and for nations to eliminate bycatch deaths of species such as turtles and dolphins. In the run-up to the vote on the resolution, an international coalition of 24 major marine mammal and ocean conservation organisations signed up to a joint statement calling on the UN to immediately implement a moratorium on longlining. In addition, international NGOs from 25 countries and more than 400 scientists, including renowned biologist EO Wilson and National Geographic magazine’s explorer in residence Sylvia Earle, are signatories to a petition urging the UN to implement an immediate moratorium on longline and gillnet fishing in the Pacific.

Change can be achieved if enough pressure is applied. The impact of longlining on the ocean and marine life is comparable to the massive slaughter inflicted by drift nets until they were effectively banned from international waters by the UN in 1991. A UN longline moratorium could be modelled on the drift-net moratorium. In 1991 a high-profile campaign exposed drift nets as floating ‘curtains of death’ that slaughtered millions of dolphins and other endangered marine species each year. Strong international political will resulted in the moratorium being implemented ahead of schedule – even in the US of George Bush Sr. Drift nets more than 2.5 miles in length are now illegal in international waters, and the EU and the state of California have also banned them from most of their waters.

Now the spotlight must be turned on the plight of the leatherback. One of three adverts recently launched by the Save the Leatherback campaign features a father and daughter at an aquarium standing in front of a huge tank in which a giant leatherback is swimming. Next to them is a sign saying ‘100,000,000 years old’, but the words have been altered by graffiti to read ‘10 years left’. I for one don’t want to be in the position of telling my children that the ad came true.

Dr Robert Ovetz is a marine species campaigner with the Sea Turtle Restoration Project and is on the graduate faculty of the New College of California in San Francisco; www.savetheleatherback.com; robert@seaturtles.org

Marinated in Mercury

The presence of methylmercury in predatory seafood species such as tuna, swordfish, king mackerel and shark has garnered extensive international media coverage and public attention in the past few years.

The two leading causes of the contamination are coal-burning power plants and the exhaust fumes of automobiles. Both emit mercury into the atmosphere, which is transformed into methylmercury in the ocean, where it continues to rapidly accumulate up the marine food chain right onto our plates.

Fish at the top of the food chain accumulate methylmercury at levels considered unsafe for consumption even by Washington. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns children and women who are pregnant or of child-bearing age not to consume species high in mercury. Swordfish, for example, contains mercury levels that are 500 per cent higher, on average, than is considered safe by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Because the EPA’s allowable concentration of methylmercury is five times lower than the FDA’s, fishing industry lobbies are pushing for standardisation of regulations in line with the FDA levels.

Fear of methylmercury poisoning in seafood led to the collapse of the Hong Kong seafood market 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.)

The continued marketing of mercury-tainted seafood raises issues about corporate influence over public health regulations. As documented by a Now With Bill Moyers investigation on US TV network PBS in August 2003, industry lobbyists like the US Tuna Foundation have managed to secure a less severe inspections regime and talked the FDA into removing tuna from a health warning that states: ‘Swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish 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.’ But as the Ecologist went to press, the FDA bowed to pressure to include albacore tuna in the warning.

At the same time, the Bush administration’s so-called ‘clear skies’ initiative has sabotaged long-awaited efforts to reduce emissions of mercury and other pollutants from the energy industry and auto manufacturers.

Oceans in peril

The problems plaguing the swordfish fishery represent a mere fraction of the larger eco-systemic collapse that is underway in the oceans. A study published in the journal Nature in September 2003 found that about 90 per cent of our large predatory fisheries are close to being or already are over-depleted. Two months later Science warned of fish stocks facing extinction within the next four 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 per cent in 15 years of exploitation’. The authors estimated that ‘large predatory fish biomass is only about 10 per cent of pre-industrial levels’. These historical trends are revealing. The ‘rebounds’ trumpeted by the fishing industry are really just what the US pressure group the Ocean Conservancy calls ‘shifting baselines’: short-term recoveries that disguise the real picture of historical declines.

Shifting baselines cannot detract from the impact eco-systemic collapse will have on the estimated 1 billion people who rely on primarily small-scale fishing for their subsistence livelihoods and protein source. In Chile and the Philippines, for example, subsistence fishermen and women are being pushed out by the privatisation of their fisheries as a means of repaying international debts. Local access rights are being sold to subsidised foreign industrial fishing vessels exporting to lucrative US, EU and Japanese consumer markets. When fisheries collapse, these industrial fish factories simply move on to greener waters – leaving local populations without income and access to affordable local seafood. At the same time, fishermen and women in the consuming countries are being driven out of business in droves by ‘cheap’ imported fish with huge hidden environmental and social costs.

What you can do

Contact UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and George W Bush, and urge them to support a UN moratorium on pelagic longline and gillnet fishing in the Pacific Ocean.

Kofi Annan

The United Nations, New York, NY 10017 Fax: (212) 963 4879; Tel: (212) 963 4475

President George W Bush

The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington DC 20500 Fax: (202) 456 2461; Tel: (202) 456 1111

To send a letter by email, go to: www.seaturtles.org/actionalertdetails.cfm?actionAlertID=43  

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2004


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