Forest Knolls, California - This week, the United Nations General Assembly will convene a high level working group to address the biological diversity crisis on the high seas. Despite the General Assembly's November 2005 resolution that calls for conservation measures and closures of fishing in areas where large numbers of critically endangered sea turtles are caught or killed, the regional fisheries management organizations tasked with implementing the UN mandate have failed to take action. At risk is the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle which scientists warn could go extinct in as little as five years unless the threat of longline fishing is controlled. Environmentalists, concerned that fishery organizations will continue to ignore the UN's recommendations, are renewing a call for a moratorium on longlining in the Pacific until protections are put into place.
"Regional fishery management organizations are acting as if the UN does not exist. The UN's legitimate and timely concerns over biological diversity and long term food supply are being ignored so that sushi and shark fin soup can fill the dinner plates of the wealthy," said Robert Ovetz, Save the Leatherback Campaign Coordinator of the US based Sea Turtle Restoration Project which is leading the advocacy effort by a coalition of international environmental organizations. "It is time for the UN to take more proactive steps by either coming down hard on the regional fisheries management organizations or going over their heads and supporting the longline moratorium in the Pacific."
In November, the UN passed the sustainable fisheries resolution A/RES/60/31 directing all regional fisheries management organizations to urgently implement fishing closures and other measures outlined in recent UN FAO guidelines for reducing interactions with sea turtles.
A recently released draft report by the Secretary General in advance of the review conference on the UN Straddling Fish Stocks Agreement (A/CONF.210/2006/1) documents the lack of progress among the regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) in implementing wide ranging precautionary measures required by the agreement. The report states that "RFMOs having competence to manage jurisdiction over fisheries that interact with oceanic sharks and other highly migratory species are aware of the bycatch problem, but it is mostly unregulated."
Last December, a measure proposed by the Forum Fisheries Agency (an organization of Pacific island states) and the United States at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) to implement bycatch mitigation measures and investigate possible time and area closures was attacked by Japan and nearly gutted. In the end, the resolution only proposed that the issue be discussed at a future scientific committee meeting. The lack of action by the WCPFC is significant because it has authority over the last remaining nesting populations of leatherback sea turtles in the Western Pacific.
According the recent reports in the scientific journal Nature, the 100 million year old leatherback sea turtle is on the brink of extinction. The population of female nesting leatherbacks has declined by about 95% since 1980. The critically endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle is expected by scientists to go extinct in the next 5-30 years unless immediate measures to eliminate threats posed by industrial longline fishing are taken.
"The fisheries commissions are pushing the UN into a corner, and in the end there will be no choice, except to witness extinctions in the Pacific or implement a moratorium on all longline fishing in the Pacific," Ovetz concluded.