Saving Sea Turtles From Oil Spills And Longline Fisheries

The loggerhead sea turtle has suffered more than a 40 percent decline in its population over the past decade.

Case Overview

Longline fishing in the Gulf of Mexico has taken a heavy toll on resident sea turtle populations. One species in particular—the loggerhead—has suffered more than a 40 percent decline in its population over the past decade. As a result, 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 NMFS has known for several years that longline vessels are catching Gulf turtles by the hundreds—levels that greatly exceed the allowed limit. The situation is so dire that in January 2009 the local fishery management council asked NMFS to close the fishery altogether. Even though the scientific data is clear, and despite the fact that NMFS has both the authority and duty to prevent further death and injury to sea turtles, the agency still failed to fulfill its legal responsibilities to protect sea turtles.

In 2009, Earthjustice asked a federal court in Florida to order NMFS to close the fishery until the agency gathered the information needed to assess how best to protect turtles. 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 on behalf of a coalition of Gulf and national conservation groups. In July 2011, a federal judge ruled that NMFS had violated the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The agency must now take concrete steps to preserve the population of imperiled Gulf turtles.

A loggerhead hatchling crawls toward the ocean on Georgia's Blackbeard Island.
A loggerhead hatchling crawls toward the ocean on Georgia's Blackbeard Island. (Becky Skiba / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Case Updates

December 1, 2011 Article

Survivor: The Sea Turtle Edition

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. Karsten was found back in May with a fishhook in his jaw and another in his esophagus. His painful plight is unfortunately all too common for countless numbers of sea turtles who mistake baited fishhooks for harmless…

July 11, 2011 Article

Monday Reads: The JFK Turtle Invasion Edition

Here at Monday Reads, we’ve followed the jellyfish typhoon invasion, gardening goat invasion, and wolverine invasion-of-one. Finally, we’ve reached the turtle invasion. A few weeks ago, New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport awoke to find its Runway 4L under siege by waves of relentless reptiles. The Associated Press reported that the “slow-motion stampede” rather conveniently got underway just as the morning rush of travelers was trying to get airborne. The onslaught soon swelled to a crescendo of more than…

July 7, 2011 Article

A Desperately Needed Win for the Loggerheads

Federal judge orders the National Marine Fisheries Service to take another look at rules that govern the Gulf of Mexico fishery in loggerheads' favored habitat