Your Help Needed to Save Pacific Leatherbacks

Date: March 28, 2003
Contact: Gary Appelson
Phone: (352) 373-6441

How You Can Help

UPDATE: December 2005 – The United Nations took an important first step toward protecting endangered sea turtles and sea birds. Thanks to everyone who wrote letters to Secretary General Kofi Annan. The UN General Assembly urged governments and fisheries management groups to take urgent steps to protect endangered sea turtles and sea birds from an indiscriminate fishing technique. A resolution adopted by consensus by the 191-nation assembly is aimed at restricting a form of industrial fishing known as longline fishing. It is used by large fishing vessels in the Pacific Ocean that trail lines studded with hooks that can stretch out as long as 60 miles (100 km) behind them, snaring millions of sea turtles and birds along with the fish they intend to catch. The resolution calls for urgent implementation of measures set out in UN Food and Agriculture Organization guidelines intended to reduce such incidental sea turtle and bird deaths. The measures include closing some fishing areas on a seasonal or continuous basis as well as restricting particular types of fishing equipment. But they fall short of the moratorium on longline fishing sought by more than 1,000 scientists from 97 countries in a letter delivered to UN delegates.


The nesting population of Pacific leatherback sea turtles has plummeted from 91,000 in 1980 to fewer than 5,000 in 2002, a decline of 95%. Pacific beaches in Mexiquillo, Mexico and Playa Grande, Costa Rica that are famed for the annual arrival of thousands of nesting sea turtles, reported just 4 and 58 leatherback arrivals last year, respectively. Marine scientists warn that unless immediate and significant steps are taken, the leatherback, which has swum the oceans since the time of the dinosaurs, will be extinct within 10 years. The plight of the world’s largest and most wide-ranging sea turtle may foreshadow a host of other extinctions.

In February, 2003, more than 400 marine turtle scientists and over 100 marine turtle conservation groups from around the globe called on the United Nations to enact a moratorium on pelagic longline and gillnet fishing in the Pacific to protect endangered sea turtles and other marine species. Copy of letter sent by over marine turtle conservation groups (pdf file).

According to the California-based Sea Turtle Restoration Project, longliners set up to 10 billion hooks in our oceans every year in their quest for swordfish and tuna. Longliners cast a fishing line up to 60 miles long on the ocean’s surface, dangling as many as 3,000 baited hooks at various depths depending on the fish they are targeting.

But longlining is non-selective; any bird, fish, or marine mammal that bites the bait or becomes entangled in the lines is caught. Worldwide, the accidental “bycatch” constitutes one quarter of the annual seafood catch and is thrown overboard, usually dead or dying. Approximately 40,000 sea turtles are caught and killed by longline operations each year, and 23 species of seabird are in danger of extinction due to impacts from longline fishing.

Longline fishing also contributes to the disastrous overfishing of ocean resources, leading to depletion and collapse of fisheries that provide the main source of protein for some 950 million people, mostly in the developing world. The United Nations reports that over 70 % of global fish populations are now overfished or at the brink of being overfished, compared to just 5 % reported only 40 years ago. In addition to the direct loss of a critical food resource, declining fisheries threaten the livelihoods of small-scale fishers and the tourist industry in coastal communities.

A moratorium on longline fishing in the Pacific, in combination with strict protection of nesting beaches, can save the leatherback from extinction, says Dr. Larry Crowder of the Marine Laboratory at Duke University. Dr. James Spotila of Drexel University predicts, “Longline and gillnet fishing in the Pacific will end during our lifetimes. It’s just a question of whether we stop now, while we can save the leatherbacks and provide help for the fishers. Or whether we’ll allow this fishery to collapse, at which point leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles will be long gone.”

Evidence of overfishing and wasteful bykill led the United Nations General Assembly to impose an effective ban on driftnet fishing in the early 1990s. Now is the time for equally decisive action to stop destructive longline fishing in the Pacific.


1. Please write a polite letter to Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations and a copy of your letter to the Secretary of the Fisheries Committee, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). (Mailed letters have the greatest impact!)

Tell the Secretary General of the UN and the FAO Fisheries Committee that you join a coalition of over 400 scientists and 100 NGOs in urging them to:

  • Institute a moratorium on pelagic (high seas) longline and gillnet fishing techniques that harm critically endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles;
  • Urge fishing nations to reduce the overall quantity of fishing to enable the long-term survival of targeted fish populations and the fishers and communities who depend on them; and
  • Provide transitional aid to fishers and communities who are impacted by shifts in policy that promote the sustainable use of the oceans.
Mail Your Letter To:
Mr. Kofi Annan
Secretary General United Nations
New York, NY 10017
FAX: 303-449-9794
Send a copy of Your Letter To:
Dr. Benedict P.Satia, Secretary
Committee of Fisheries, FAO
Via delle Terme di Caracalla
00100 Rome, ITALY
FAX: Int’l code+39 06 5705 6500 (or 3605)


2. The Consumer Connection: Skip the Swordfish

We are asking consumers, grocery stores and restaurants to stop buying and selling swordfish for two main reasons:

  • The longline fishing fleet that targets swordfish is responsible for most of the sea turtle “bykill,” especially in the Pacific, and
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns pregnant women, children and women who might become pregnant to avoid eating swordfish, shark, tilefish and mackerel because of their high methylmercury content.

Thanks to Global Response for this Action Alert and their efforts!