In The News
Honolulu Star Advertiser - July 17, 2019
By David Henkin
David Henkin is a staff attorney for Earthjustice’s Mid-Pacific regional office in Honolulu.
It’s National Ocean Month, a time to celebrate the ocean that surrounds our islands and makes life here so special. It’s also a time to think deeply about how well we are — or are not — fulfilling our kuleana to malama i ke kai, to care for our ocean resources.
Unfortunately, in the first half of this year, the Hawaii-based longline industry has continued to target tuna and swordfish with unsustainable fishing methods that kill and injure ocean animals that have called Hawaii home since long before the first humans arrived.
True to form, the industry and the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (Wespac), which manages the fishery, have focused on trying to dismantle critical protections rather than seek solutions to minimize harm to Hawaii’s kamaaina marine species.
In January, longliners fishing for tuna killed one false killer whale and inflicted life-threatening injuries to another, exceeding in only one month the level of fishing-related harm the species can withstand in an entire year.
Under the protection plan mandated by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, these hookings triggered closure of a large fishing area south of the Main Hawaiian Islands — the Southern Exclusion Zone (SEZ) — to protect the whales from further harm. The SEZ also closed in 2018 for the same reason, excessive life-threatening harm to false killer whales from longline hooks.
The protections for Hawaii’s false killer whales were the culmination of three Earthjustice lawsuits that spanned a decade — and faced considerable industry pushback. Rather than try to reduce the longliners’ toll (through use of hooks less likely to cause fatal injuries, for example), Wespac has prioritized the longline industry’s profits over the ocean’s health.
Seeking to ensure the SEZ will never close again, Wespac is now urging the National Marine Fisheries Service — the federal agency charged with protecting marine species — to increase the number of whales that longliners can hook even though current limits are based on sound science and designed to protect the overall population in Hawaiian waters.
False killer whales aren’t the only nontarget species the fishery kills. In 2017, according to their own logbooks, Hawaii-based longliners hooked roughly 110,000 sharks. Among the longliners’ victims are oceanic whitetip sharks, whose numbers have declined more than 90 percent since 1995.
The Fisheries Service added this species to the Endangered Species Act list last year, but has let the longline industry continue business as usual. Earthjustice has put the Fisheries Service on notice that its failure to protect oceanic whitetip sharks from death in the longline industry risks landing the agency in court.
Hawaii-based longliners also pose existential threats to critically endangered sea turtles. Less than three months into 2019, longliners targeting swordfish hit their annual limit for hooking loggerhead sea turtles, triggering closure of the fishery for the rest of the year. Excessive hooking of loggerheads also closed the fishery in 2018.
Rather than require the longline industry to modify its practices to reduce harm to endangered turtles, the Fisheries Service, with Wespac’s support, is proposing to more than double the number of loggerheads the longliners can hook and kill, despite the lack of any credible scientific analysis the species can withstand even greater fishery-related losses.
The longline industry isn’t above the law, and Wespac and the Fisheries Service must manage the fishery to avoid harm to our critically imperiled, native ocean animals. Killing Hawaii’s false killer whales, sharks and sea turtles in the pursuit of maximum profits is neither legal nor pono.
As the Hawaiian proverb says, “Malama i ke kai, a malama ke kai ia ‘oe.” Care for the ocean, and the ocean will care for you.