Conservation groups went back to court Thursday in their continuing battle to protect imperiled sea turtles from death and injury in the Gulf of Mexico bottom longline fishery. The coalition, which includes Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and others, says the National Marine Fisheries Service's (NMFS) latest assessment of the fishery's impact on loggerhead sea turtles is based on incomplete science and that new regulatory measures will fall short of giving the species the protection it needs to survive and recover. NMFS, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is responsible for protecting sea turtles under federal law.
NMFS recently reopened the bottom longline fishery after a 6-month emergency closure. That closure came after the agency determined that the bottom longline fishery had been capturing and killing hundreds more sea turtles than it was allowed to under federal law, specifically the Endangered Species Act. The coalition's previous lawsuit, filed in April, had contended that NMFS was required to close the bottom longline fishery and address the new data on sea turtle capture in a new biological opinion. The new biological opinion released in October of this year was the result of the agency's review of the new data. The agency reopened the fishery in October under a plan that would allow it to injure or kill six to seven hundred loggerheads every three years -- more than seven times as many as the bottom longline fishery vessels were allowed to capture or kill under the previous plan. The new lawsuit challenges the agency's new biological opinion as unlawful and incomplete.
"NMFS is continuing to violate the law," said Steve Roady, an attorney with Earthjustice. "In the teeth of a staggering decline in the population of imperiled sea turtles, the agency has now authorized a huge increase in the number of turtles killed by this fishery. This decision is unlawful and the underlying biological opinion is fundamentally flawed, so we are going back to court."
"NMFS has swept sound science and common sense under the rug in order to justify allowing the fishery to kill an unsustainable number of loggerhead sea turtles," said Andrea Treece, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "The agency is charged with protecting sea turtles as well as managing fisheries, yet both sea turtles and fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico are in terrible shape. It's time for the agency to get serious about protecting our marine resources before it's too late."
The conservation groups charge that NMFS omitted important new science from its analysis and failed to back up its flawed finding that the bottom longline fishery would not harm the loggerhead sea turtles' chances at survival and recovery. NMFS's 2009 Loggerhead Review Team issued a report in August finding that loggerheads are in danger of extinction. The report also found that capture by vessels in commercial fisheries is a primary threat to the loggerhead population. Loggerhead nesting in Florida has declined by over 40 percent over the past decade. In 2009, Florida beaches saw the fourth lowest nesting numbers in recorded history.
"We have some major concerns about the agency's biological opinion, such as the omission of detailed information about the presence of turtles in the fishing area year-round. The agency has no basis for thinking loggerheads are not currently at substantial risk," said Marydele Donnelly, a biologist with the Caribbean Conservation Corporation. "Moreover, 2009 was one of the worst nesting years on record for loggerheads in Florida, indicating to us that fisheries are the smoking gun in the decline of the loggerhead sea turtle."
"When NMFS implemented its emergency closure earlier this year, we were hopeful that it really was going to take a hard look at the impacts of this fishery on these truly imperiled turtles," said Sierra Weaver, attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. "Unfortunately, the agency hasn't followed through with the analysis and conservation-minded approach we were hoping for."
"NMFS has failed to fully consider the risk that the bottom longline fishery poses to the future of threatened and endangered turtle populations," said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network. "What they are doing fails to satisfy the agency's legal duty to protect these magnificent creatures."
"We simply cannot risk losing more sea turtles to bottom longline fishing, which has shown no regard for protected species," said Carole Allen, Gulf of Mexico office director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network/HEART (Help Save Endangered Animals -- Ridley Turtles). "We've worked too hard to protect sea turtles in the Gulf from fisheries to have them pushed farther towards extinction by Florida longliners."
Bottom longline fishing is a fishing process that uses hundreds or even thousands of baited hooks along miles of lines laid behind fishing vessels and stretching down to the reef and Gulf floor. The fishing hooks target species like grouper, tilefish, and sharks, but often also catch other fish or wildlife, including endangered and threatened sea turtles. Injuries from these hooks affect a sea turtle's ability to feed, swim, avoid predators, and reproduce. Many times the turtles drown or, unable to recover from the extreme physiological stress, die soon after being released while trying to recover from capture.
A copy of the complaint filed Thursday against the National Marine Fisheries Service and Department of Commerce in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida. (PDF)
A copy of the December letter the groups sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service and Department of Commerce providing notice of additional legal problems regarding their ongoing failure to protect sea turtles. (PDF)