In an effort to prevent the extinction of loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles due to the drowning of thousands of these ancient animals each year, conservation groups filed suit today to force the National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS” also called “NOAA Fisheries”) to take steps to reduce capture and death of sea turtles in the commercial longline fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.
Every year, thousands of threatened and endangered sea turtles drown after becoming snagged by baited fishing hooks set by longline fishing boats. Longline fishing is an industrial technology that globally can set billions of baited hooks each year on lines that may be more than 60 miles long. The US Atlantic longline fishery sets more than seven million hooks per year. These hooks take a deadly toll not just on their target species — fish such as tuna, swordfish, and sharks — but also on sea birds, marine mammals, and sea turtles, along with tens of thousands of unwanted fish that are thrown overboard dead and dying. In the past ten years (1992-2002) alone, the US Atlantic fishery has hooked or entangled more than 20,000 sea turtles.
“For the past two years, NMFS has ignored its legal obligations by allowing longliners to capture and kill more sea turtles than the agency’s own biologists believe the species can sustain,” said David Guest, the Earthjustice attorney who is representing the Center for Biological Diversity, Florida Wildlife Federation, and Turtle Island Restoration Network in the suit. “Now the agency is ignoring its own scientists’ research by failing to implement measures likely to reduce sea turtle entanglements and death.”
Under the federal Endangered Species Act, NMFS is required to insure that activities the agency authorizes do not “jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered species or threatened species.” In 2001, NMFS concluded that longline fishing in the north and mid Atlantic Ocean (from Canada to the Caribbean and east to the Azores) would jeopardize the survival of protected sea turtle species. The agency developed a plan that called for closing certain areas to longline fishing, during certain times of the year, and issued a permit allowing the longline fleets to accidentally hook up to 438 leatherback sea turtles and 402 loggerhead sea turtles each year.
Unfortunately, sea turtles continue to be killed in numbers far higher than permitted. In 2002, for example, longline fisheries under the agency’s management exceeded the permitted levels of turtle captures by capturing 962 leatherback turtles, more than double the legal limit. The bulk of the captures, 695 in total, occurred in the Gulf of Mexico making that region a major killing field for this highly endangered turtle.
“Longline fishing for swordfish and tuna in the biologically diverse waters of the Gulf of Mexico is akin to hunting deer by placing land mines in the forest,” said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity. “You may catch your deer, but you invariably kill many of the neighboring species as well.”
Despite the unpermitted sea turtle bycatch that is already occurring, NMFS has continued to authorize the longline fishery. In fact, the agency has recently proposed to relax measures needed to protect sea turtles from extinction in the face of rapid increases in the numbers of leatherbacks and loggerheads that are taken by longline fishing.
“Industrial longline fishing in the Gulf and Atlantic is a non-selective method that forms a curtain of death with its millions of baited hooks,” said Todd Steiner, Director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. “These fisheries are driving sea turtles, marlin, whales, and seabirds to the brink of extinction. If we don’t limit the impacts of this technology, there will be nothing left in the oceans for future generations.”
“These ancient species could vanish from our planet within this century if we do not take steps now to ensure their survival,” added Manley Fuller, President of the Florida Wildlife Federation. “A few common-sense measures, such as reducing fishing in the areas where sea turtles are most often found, could prevent the loss of these magnificent creatures. Yet NMFS continues to break the law and allow the slaughter to continue.”
The case, Center for Biological Diversity et al. v. National Marine Fisheries Service, was filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Florida.