The National Marine Fisheries Service has ordered a six-month emergency closure of the bottom longline fishery in the Gulf of Mexico to protect imperiled sea turtles from capture and death. During the closure, which will go into effect May 16, the agency will determine whether and how the fishery can operate while ensuring the survival of the turtles over the long term.
The Service is closing the fishery because its data indicate the fishery had captured more than eight times the number of sea turtles it authorized in its 2005 biological opinion. A Federal Register notice that will be published May 1 explains that further bottom longline fishing could jeopardize the existence of loggerhead sea turtles “unless action is taken to reduce the fishery’s impact on this threatened species.”
Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and a coalition of other conservation groups — Caribbean Conservation Corporation, Florida Wildlife Federation, Gulf Restoration Network and Sea Turtle Restoration Project — had sued the agency in mid-April to seek protection for these imperiled animals and requested the emergency closure implemented today.
“Today is a great day for all who believe in protecting vulnerable sea turtles from unnecessary and illegal harm and ensuring their continued survival in the wild,” said Steve Roady, an attorney with Earthjustice. “We commend NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco for setting a new course for NMFS that relies on sound science to manage our oceans for the great benefit of our nation and local communities.”
“This temporary closure gives sea turtles a much-needed reprieve and gives the agency time to make scientifically sound decisions regarding the long-term operation of the fishery,” said Andrea Treece, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “More sea turtles will now have a chance to make it back to their nesting beaches — and even just look for food — without getting caught up in longlines.”
“After years of delay and the death of hundreds of turtles, it’s great to know that protections are finally on their way,” said Sierra Weaver, an attorney with Defenders of Wildlife. “This closure will insure that the fishery can operate without threatening these species with extinction.”
Details on Emergency Closure:
- Following the conservation organizations’ lawsuit filed April 15 and renewed action by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to support an emergency closure in mid-April, the Fisheries Service is closing the bottom longline fishery for up to 180 days.
- The closure will become effective May 16, 2009 (15 days after publication in the Federal Register) to provide two weeks for fishing trips that are now occurring to receive notice and reduce disruption on the fishery for already initiated trips.
- During this closure, the agency states that it plans to complete a new biological opinion that will evaluate the impact of the fishery and ensure that it is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the sea turtle species captured in it. It will also consider measures that could be used to reduce turtle capture and killing by the fishery, to allow it to reopen at a future date.
- The Service also states that it is working with the Gulf Council to implement “long-term measures to reduce bycatch of sea turtles in the eastern Gulf of Mexico,” which “are needed to provide protection for loggerhead sea turtles” in particular due to the long-term decline in their nesting population in Florida. Such long-term measures, for consideration on a permanent basis, would be implemented after a period of public notice during which all interested citizens would have full opportunity to comment.
- The Service provides notice that it may renew the closure for a longer period of time if necessary for the agency to fulfill its legal obligations under the Endangered Species Act and the Magnuson Stevens Act to prevent further harm to threatened and endangered sea turtles.
The National Marine Fisheries Service took this action in part because in 2005, it had determined that the Gulf of Mexico fishery could capture up to 114 sea turtles, including 85 loggerheads, during a three-year period without violating the Endangered Species Act. But in recent months the agency released new information that vessels in the Gulf caught nearly 1,000 turtles between July 2006 and December 2008 — more than eight times the number allowed. In February 2009, the Service requested public comment regarding an emergency closure to protect sea turtles in view of the high numbers of unexpected turtle captures but still had not acted as of April 15, 2009 when conservation groups filed suit to compel protective action by the agency. The National Marine Fisheries Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is responsible for ensuring that bottom longline fishing does not pose a threat to sea turtle populations.
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 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 from the longlines. A portion of fishing vessels within the reef fish fishery have used bottom longline fishing gear off the west Florida shelf within the eastern Gulf of Mexico, which the Fisheries Service has described as “an important sea turtle foraging habitat.”
A copy of the notice to be published in the Federal Register on May 1 is available on its Web site at: http://www.federalregister.gov/OFRUpload/OFRData/2009-10042_PI.pdf. It is titled “Fisheries of the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and South Atlantic: Reef Fish Fishery of the Gulf of Mexico; Gulf Reef Fish Longline Restriction” (2009-10042).
A copy of the complaint filed against the National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Department of Commerce in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.
A copy of the letter the groups sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service outlining the immediate dangers to threatened and endangered sea turtles.