Cutting the Longline to Extinction

Sea Turtle Campaign Aims at Industrial Fishing and Mercury Poisoned Seafood

By Dr. Robert Ovetz

Chanting "Get on the right track … stop killing the leatherback!," a festive protest by people of many ages dressed in colorful turtle costumes wound its way along the busy streets of San Francisco's Fishermen's Wharf. The October 2003 demonstration marked the debut of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project's "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 for lucrative seafood markets in Japan, the US and Europe.

Longlines, composed of invisible monofilament lines up to 60 miles long and annually float billions of hooks in the Pacific alone, are the greatest threat to sea turtles, maiming and killing as many as 40,000 nesting females each year. Having once swum with the dinosaurs, the more than 100 million [years] old leatherback now hangs by a thread at the threshold of extinction. Because leatherbacks feed on jellyfish near the ocean surface, they are extremely vulnerable to swordfish and tuna longlining. The rapid growth of longlining during the past 20 years has coincided with a 95% drop in estimated nestings by leatherback females. Longline fishing in the Pacific annually maims and kills an additional 4 million sharks, whales, dolphins, seals, sea birds and porpoises and is wiping out some of our swordfish and tuna fisheries.

The campaign to save the leatherback is at the heart of a concerted international effort to end the lawless pillaging of the oceans and needless slaughter of millions of marine species such as the Pacific leatherback by industrial fishing, while also sounding the alarm about the threat of methyl mercury poisoning to people who eat swordfish, shark, tuna and other predatory fish.

The Sea Turtle Restoration Project is undertaking a broad array of initiatives to try to arrest the decline of leatherbacks, including direct action, strategic legal action, advocating for a United Nations moratorium on Pacific longlining, a national media campaign, and educating seafood consumers about the risk of mercury poisoning.

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.

In November 2002, STRP teamed up with the San Francisco-based As You Sow Foundation to conduct laboratory tests of swordfish sold by the five chains. When the results showed mercury levels at up to twice the exposure threshold recommend by the US Food and Drug Administration, we filed a notice of intent to sue the supermarkets and Red Lobster under a 1986 California "right to know" law which requires the posting of public warnings about toxic materials in food.

With this evidence in hand, the California Attorney's General office filed the lawsuit itself in February 2003. An interim legal agreement among the parties stipulates that stores must post signs warning of the dangers of consuming seafood containing methyl mercury, especially swordfish, shark, tuna, king mackerel and tilefish.

During the October 2003 National Fisheries Institute's conference and International West Coast Seafood Show in Long Beach, California, Sea Turtle Restoration Project activists confronted swordfish dealers 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.

The longliners have a lot to fear from a campaign for a moratorium. A 1999 lawsuit filed by the Sea Turtle Restoration Project and Earthjustice closed two million square miles of territorial waters around Hawaii to swordfish longliners. When about three dozen Hawaiian longliners relocated to California waters to exploit a loophole in the ruling by US District Judge David Ezra, we responded with another lawsuit seeking an injunction to stop longlining once and for all. When Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) a few weeks later introduced a bill to ban longlines in California waters, the issue suddenly no longer seemed to be a strictly partisan contest of "industry vs. environment."

In fall 2003, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, responsible for managing west coast fisheries, submitted a Fishery Management Plan guided by the precautionary principle. At the heart of the plan is a ban on swordfish and tuna fishing in Pacific territorial waters stretching 200 miles.

The international character of the ocean crisis caused by industrial fishing requires international action. The United Nations is expected to increasingly discuss ocean conservation in 2004, starting with a resolution condemning shark finning and the reduction of bycatch which passed in November 2003. We'll need more than talk if we are to save our oceans. It is critical that the UN implement a moratorium on longlining in the Pacific modeled after the 1992 driftnet moratorium if we are to stop the slaughter and save the ancient leatherback sea turtle.

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. Email The STRP petition calling for a UN moratorium on longlining, signed by 24 international ocean groups, is posted at Visit STRP's "Save the Leatherback" campaign at

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2004 The Progressive Populist