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By Jan TenBruggencate

HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (January 27, 2000 – The Honolulu Advertiser)---Environmental groups have sued the National Marine Fisheries Service to shut down the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands lobster fishery, arguing that it may be depriving starving Hawaiian monk seals of food.

Federal researchers say they are studying the issue, but have no clear indication that fishing for lobsters is seriously affecting the seals.

And fishermen, who recently were hit by a federal order banning long-line fishing in a vast region north of Hawai‘i, argue there is no justification now for a move that would put more fishing boats and crews out of work.

The Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund yesterday filed suit on behalf of the Greenpeace Foundation, Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network, citing the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Department of Commerce for violating both the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff said seal pups around French Frigate Schools are dying from starvation. He said the lobster fishery was catching 2 to 3 lobsters per set trap in the 1980s and is now getting less than half a lobster per trap, suggesting the lobsters are overfished.

"We have starving monk seals and we have an over-fished lobster population. I think the only viable option for the monk seals is to shut down the crustacean fishery," Achitoff said.

But lobster boat operators argue the lobster fishery is already severely restricted, and the impacts of fishing on seals are not clearly demonstrated.

"Before people in the state are economically disenfranchised and markets are disrupted, we should get the science," said Jim Cook, part-owner of an interest in a lobster fishing boat, and vice president of Pacific Ocean Producers, a firm that provides supplies to fishing vessels. Cook is also chairman of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council.

Robert Schroeder, a marine ecologist and chief scientist for the council, said National Marine Fisheries Service researchers are studying the seal-lobster connection in association with a proposed management plant for coral reef ecosystems, and should have good scientific conclusions by the end of the year.

"How significant lobsters are in their diet, we don’t know yet," he said. The seals are opportunistic feeders that use a wide range of marine organisms for food.

For additional reports from The Honolulu Advertiser, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Honolulu Advertiser.

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