It’s not every day that a wild animal gets a lucky break, but a few months back that’s exactly what happened to Karsten, a peaceful loggerhead sea turtle that was released off of Sombrero Beach in the Florida Keys after months of rehabilitation.
Earthjustice has filed suit to protect sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico. These turtles are a key part of the ecosystem in the Gulf, where they forage and live throughout the year. They also are a valuable legacy for Gulf residents who take pride in observing and enjoying the sea turtles' continued choice of their local beaches to nest. But they are being captured and killed in large numbers by fishing vessels that deploy miles of line and thousands of hooks along the ocean floor. The turtles drown or suffer serious injury when they grab the bait off these hooks.
Populations of these sea turtles are vulnerable; one turtle species in particular—the loggerhead—has suffered more than a 40 percent decline in its population over the past decade. Therefore, the Endangered Species Act requires the National Marine Fisheries Service to strictly limit the number of turtles that can be caught and harmed by these fishing vessels. But the Service has known for several years that these turtles are being caught by the hundreds, at levels that greatly exceed the allowed limit. The situation is so dire that in January 2009 the local fishery management council asked the Service to close the fishery altogether. Even though the scientific data are clear, and despite the fact that the Service has both the authority and duty to prevent further death and injury to sea turtles, the Service still failed to fulfill its legal responsibilities to protect sea turtles.
In its first Gulf bottom longline lawsuit in 2009, Earthjustice asked the federal court in Florida to order the Service to close the fishery until the Service gathered the information needed to assess how best to protect the turtles and avoid further decimating their populations. In 2009, NMFS then temporarily closed the bottom longline fishery and issued a new biological opinion. Later in 2009, however, NMFS then reopened the fishery again while instituting some new measures under the ESA, including limiting bottom longline fishing to an area outside of 35 fathoms shoreward, which is a significant part of the loggerhead sea turtle’s Gulf residence area. Then in 2010, the agency issued new regulations that weakened protection for sea turtles just as they became even more vulnerable due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Even though it recognized the need to move hundreds of sea turtle nests away from the oil-affected Gulf beaches, NMFS failed to perform essential scientific consultation after the oil spill to ensure that vulnerable sea turtles receive protection needed to ensure their long-term survival and recovery.
To challenge NMFS’s ongoing failure to protect sea turtles, Earthjustice filed a second bottom longline lawsuit against NMFS on behalf of a coalition of Gulf and national conservation groups. In July 2011, the federal district court ruled that NMFS had violated the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, by failing to perform the necessary scientific consultation after the Gulf oil spill and by failing to consider all reasonable alternatives, including the ongoing use of the previous ESA rule.
Loggerhead turtles are beset by a bewildering and deadly series of challenges, much as the other species of sea turtles are. People raid their nests and steal eggs. Hundreds used to die in shrimpers' nets until the advent of turtle excluder devices. Miles of their nesting beaches have been "armored," that is, lined with boulders to defeat natural erosion. Hundreds used to die feeding on baited hooks aimed at catching swordfish and tuna.