A longline is a fishing line usually made of monofilament. The length of the line generally ranges from 1.6km (1 mile) to as long as 100km (62 miles). The line is buoyed by styrofoam or plastic floats. Every hundred or so feet, there is a secondary line attached extending down about 5m (16 feet). This secondary line is hooked and baited with squid, fish, or in cases we have discovered, with fresh dolphin meat.
The baited hooks can be seen by albatross from the air and when they dive on the hooks, they are caught and they drown. Other forms of marine wildlife see the bait from the waters below and get hooked when they try to eat the bait.
The lines are set adrift from vessels for a period of 12 to 24 hours.
A seafaring symbol for centuries, immortalized in Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, albatrosses roam widely across vast expanses of the oceans of the world, rarely coming ashore except to breed on remote oceanic islands in or near the Southern Ocean.
Unfortunately for the various species of albatross in this remote part of the world, fleets of hundreds of fishing vessels from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia hunt the Southern bluefin tuna, sharks, and billfish.
Albatross and other seabird species are caught and dragged underwater to their deaths on these deadly, baited hooks as they are launched from the ships.
As many as 100 million hooks a year are set by the Japanese fleet alone in the Southern bluefin tuna fishery. Tens of thousands of birds are being killed annually.
One conservative calculation for albatross killed on Japanese longliners is 44,000 per year. The actual figure could be double that, according to researchers, but data on albatross kills by other nations' fishing vessels is not available.
Twelve of the world's 14 albatross species are believed to be dying in the tens of thousands each year in this way. Because of the large number of birds affected, commercial fishing has been identified as the most serious threat to the survival of most albatross species.
Many species of sea turtles fall victim to the deadly hooks of the longliners.
20,000 loggerhead turtles are captured every year by the Spanish longline fishery in the Mediterranean Sea, and 4,000 of them are believed to die because they are returned to the sea with the hook still embedded in their throats.
Sea Shepherd crew have recorded dozens of turtle carcasses along the Pacific coast of Central America. When examined, all the dead turtles were found to have hooks embedded in their throats.
According to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), 75% of the loggerhead turtles and 40% of the leatherback turtles taken by United States-based pelagic longliners in the Atlantic are caught on the Grand Banks in the North Atlantic .
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that 40,000 sea turtles are killed annually in the global longline fisheries.
Leatherback turtles, the largest turtles in the world, will be extinct within a few decades if current fishing practices continue. That is the conclusion of marine researchers speaking at the 2002 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Denver. "We've done specific analysis on beaches where we've got a lot of data and we expect them to disappear in 10 to 30 years," said Larry Crowder, from Duke University, North Carolina.
Longlines are the most significant factor in the rapid diminishment of shark populations in the oceans. Longlines ranging from one mile in length to over one hundred miles in length are baited with fish, (often illegally killed dolphins or seals), and are meant to target shark, swordfish, and tuna. The sharks targeted are caught mostly for their fins (which account for only 4% of their body weight) and also for their cartilage, liver oil, and teeth. The longline fishermen remove the fins and toss the still living shark back into the sea to die an agonizing death. Unable to swim, they slowly sink towards the bottom where other fish eat them alive. If longlines are not abolished, the oceans will lose most species of sharks within the next decade. Please visit our Shark Finning page for more information.
Currently Sea Shepherd is tackling the problem in both pelagic waters and in territorial waters of some nation states.
Our legal authority to intervene within territorial waters of a nation state is by way of agreement with the respective state. Presently, the Sea Shepherd has a contractual agreement to intervene against illegal fishing activities in the marine reserve waters of the Galapagos National Park, and very soon will have an agreement with Colombia’s Malpelo Island National Park.
Intervention in International Waters
The use of longlines in international waters is not illegal in itself. However, if the lines take an endangered or threatened species, they become illegal because the taking of an endangered species is a violation of the Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES).
International maritime law dictates that a longline that does not bear an identifying flag is in effect legally salvageable, i.e., free for the taking because it is not attached to the ship or boat that deploys it.
When Does Sea Shepherd Intervene?
A Sea Shepherd ship and crew will intervene to confiscate longlines if any of the following evidence is found:
So far, in every case of our discovery of a longline at sea, there has been an intervention, because the crew did not see any evidence of identification or of bird-scaring devices.
Where Has Sea Shepherd Confiscated Longlines?
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been confiscating longlines since 1989. We have taken lines as short as 0.5 km (0.3 miles) and as long as 100km (62 miles).
What Has Sea Shepherd Done with Confiscated Longlines?
The monofilament line is incinerated onboard ship. The twine line is kept and utilized onboard ship for tie-downs and for knot braiding on the ship’s rails. The hooks and swivels are kept for display purposes. The lead weights are melted down for dive weights.
The following are also guidelines for determining the illegality of longlines being deployed in the world’s oceans: