The federal government said it will loosen regulations on Hawaii-based longline swordfish fishermen that are designed to protect sea turtles.
The revisions, announced Thursday and due to take effect next month, allow longline fishing boats to deploy more gear to fish for swordfish. They also allow the fishery to accidentally hook or entangle more than 46 loggerhead sea turtles _ a threatened species _ each year, up from 17 currently.
The annual allowed bycatch for leatherback sea turtles _ an endangered species _ will remain unchanged at 16. Longline boats must stop fishing for swordfish when these annual limits are reached.
The National Marine Fisheries Service said the new regulations will allow fishermen to catch more even as they protect sea turtles and other species.
"This final rule optimizes the U.S. harvest of swordfish and other fish species, without jeopardizing the continued existence and recovery of threatened and endangered sea turtles and other protected species," the agency said.
But environmentalists argue the new regulations will harm turtles, as well as other species acidentally caught in the fishery including sharks, albatross, and dolphins.
"It's definitely bad news for the marine environment," said Teri Shore, program director for the Turtle Island Restoration Network in Forest Knolls, Calif. "The leatherbacks are already on the edge of extinction and allowing more swordfish fishing is going to push them closer to the edge."
Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff said his organization would sue the agency on the grounds the new regulations violate the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and other laws.
Current restrictions were imposed in 2004, as the industry began to test the use of circle hooks and mackerel-type bait shown to reduce bycatch. The fishery had been shut down for two years before that because it was catching too many sea turtles.
In a Federal Register filing announcing the new regulations Thursday, the fisheries service said sea turtle bycatch has dropped 89 percent since the fishery reopened in 2004 compared to 1994-2002.
Most turtles mistakenly caught or hooked since 2004 haven't been mortally wounded, the agency said.
The turtles getting caught in the fishery are migratory species that crisscross the Pacific.
Pacific leatherback turtles nest in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and then swim 6,000 miles to the U.S. West Coast to feed on jellyfish off California and Oregon.
Pacific loggerhead turtles nest in Japan then swim to Mexico's Baja California and the Sea of Cortez to feed.
Longline fishing vessels string a line in the ocean, ranging from one mile to 50 miles long, to catch fish. They run smaller lines with baited hooks off the central line and wait for bait to attract fish.