Photo: Manuel Emha
For more than 100 million years, sea turtles have charted the seven seas. With their paddle-shaped flippers and hydrodynamic bodies, they are capable of crossing entire oceans, coming ashore only to build nests and lay their eggs. Upon hatching, baby sea turtles instinctually head towards the waves where they begin their long journey towards adulthood.
But over just a few short decades, these ancient and resilient creatures have succumbed to human activities, and their numbers are now plunging. From the destruction of their nesting sites and poaching of turtle eggs to destructive fishing methods that entangle and drown unsuspecting turtles, all of the world’s sea turtle species are facing the threat of extinction.
One of several types of sea turtles found in the Gulf of Mexico, loggerheads rely on Florida's waters and beaches for valuable nesting and foraging habitat. After years of capture by commercial fisheries, Florida has seen its nesting loggerhead population plummet by more than 40 percent in the last decade.
Florida is also home to the most endangered sea turtle in the world, the Kemp’s Ridley, as well as the green sea turtle, which can be found as far away as Africa and Australia.
Each of these species is either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. One of the primary threats to these vulnerable creatures is a harmful form of commercial fishing, called bottom longlining.
THE IMPACTS OF LONGLINE FISHING
Bottom longline fishing uses hundreds to thousands of baited hooks strung along miles of fishing lines that stretch down to the ocean floor. Although the hooks are meant to target commercial fish species like grouper, they can also snag and entangle other species, including sea turtles.
Many turtles drown when they get caught by longlines because they cannot surface for air. Even if the turtle manages to escape or is tossed back into the ocean after being caught, the injuries it sustains impairs its ability to feed, swim, or avoid predators. As a result, many turtles end up dying even after being released from the longlines.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) discovered that the bottom longline fishery was severely harming sea turtle populations in the Gulf of Mexico, by capturing more than eight times the number of sea turtles in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Since all seven sea turtle species are listed as endangered, they are technically protected under federal law.
EARTHJUSTICE TAKES LEGAL ACTION
Despite its own findings, NMFS refused to take any meaningful action to stop the decline of sea turtle populations in the Gulf of Mexico, forcing Earthjustice to sue the agency in 2009 on behalf of a number of conservation organizations.
Fortunately for endangered sea turtles in the gulf, the lawsuit worked.
On May 1, 2009, the National Marine Fisheries Service responded to the Earthjustice lawsuit and the call of fellow conservationists and ordered a 6-month emergency closure of the longline fishery. The closure is a critical first step towards ensuring the survival of the world’s sea turtles. During the closure, NMFS has promised to accept public comments as it moves forward, and Earthjustice and its allies will also work to support the public’s right to know where the fish on our dinner tables come from, and whether sea turtles were harmed in the process.
Although endangered sea turtles still face a very long uphill battle to recovery, they are getting a much needed boost thanks to the work of environmental attorneys.