WASHINGTON -- Leatherback sea turtles are likely to be "effectively extinct within 20 years" if two new federal permits for fishing off the coast of California go into effect, environmental groups claim in a new lawsuit.
In April, the Trump administration granted new two-year "exempted fishing permits" to two California-based vessels in what are currently protected waters.
This type of experimental permit is "the only way we can improve the fisheries," said Kathleen Fosmark, co-chair of the Alliance of Communities for Sustainable Fisheries.
Environmental groups argue, however, that the fishing permits are using a loophole to allow the controversial fishing practice known as longline fishing in the protected Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area.
Longline fishing has been banned from waters off California since 2004, when the federal government determined that it endangered sea turtles that feed along the coast.
The commercial fishing technique uses hundreds of baited hooks attached to a long fishing line -- up to 60 miles -- to catch swordfish, tuna and other fish. But the hooks also catch other marine wildlife, including endangered Pacific leatherback, loggerhead and olive ridley sea turtles.
Pacific leatherback turtles -- the world's largest turtles -- are at particular risk of extinction, scientists say.
"The failure of the Fisheries Service to comply with environmental laws in issuing the permit diminishes leatherback sea turtles' slim chance to defy predictions of extinction," attorneys for the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network claim in their suit.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, an agency within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, determined otherwise. In a notice issued on May 8, the federal agency said the permits "are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat."
The notice points out that the permits require the two vessels to take extra precautions, "to monitor and lower the risk of interactions with protected species," and set "limits on incidents of hooking or entanglement of loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles." The longline fishing will have to halt immediately if "one mortality of a leatherback sea turtle is observed."