A group of conservation organizations is suing the National Marine Fisheries Service to force action quickly to protect threatened and endangered sea turtles from death and injury in the Gulf of Mexico bottom longline fishery. Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and a coalition of conservation groups are urging the Fisheries Service to impose immediate protections for the imperiled species.
“Important populations of sea turtles in the Gulf have been illegally killed by the hundreds since 2006 in flagrant violation of the Endangered Species Act,” said Steve Roady, an attorney with Earthjustice. “Now that the fishery is in full force for the season, it has become necessary to go to court to require the new administration to take emergency action to protect these vulnerable turtles.”
The National Marine Fisheries Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NMFS” or “NOAA Fisheries”) is responsible for ensuring that bottom longline fishing does not pose a threat to sea turtle populations. In 2005, the agency 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 the agency has released new information estimating that vessels in the Gulf caught nearly 1,000 turtles between July 2006 and December 2008 – more than eight times the number allowed. Although the agency was required to issue a report on the number of turtles captured by the bottom longline fishery every year starting in 2006, it failed to do so. As a result, the high numbers of turtles caught in longline equipment was not discovered at that time and hundreds more sea turtles were captured in 2007 and 2008.
“The current emergency could have been avoided if the National Marine Fisheries Service simply had been paying attention and making adjustments in the fishery before the turtle takes soared to astronomical levels in the past several years,” said Andrea Treece, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Now the agency’s only lawful choice is to suspend the bottom longline fishery until the agency figures out how to prevent more turtles from being hurt or killed.”
Following on the conservation organizations’ notice of its intent to sue the agency for violations of the Endangered Species Act in January, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council also weighed in, recommending the closure of the bottom longline fishery until the National Marine Fisheries Service can ensure the protection of the turtles. But in March, the bottom longline fishery fully re-opened for the season – greatly increasing the immediate threat to sea turtles.
“Information indicates that the sea turtles are in trouble now. April has been a high time for turtle takes in the past and the agency has no basis for thinking they are not currently at risk,” said Sierra Weaver, an attorney for Defenders of Wildlife.
In addition to the high rate of capture from the bottom longline fishery, other troubling news from Florida researchers has documented a startling decline in loggerhead sea turtle nesting over the past decade.
“Loggerhead nesting in Florida has declined by nearly 41% in the last decade while green and leatherback turtle nesting on the very same beaches is increasing dramatically,” said Marydele Donnelly of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation. “This fishery is undermining nearly three decades of conservation work to protect loggerheads from a multitude of threats. By failing to act, the National Marine Fisheries Service is not serving as a good steward for the nation’s sea turtles.”
“We must end the indiscriminate killing of sea turtles,” said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation. “The adult and sub-adult turtles harmed by bottom longline fishing are simply too valuable to the overall health and survival of these populations – and we need them to be able to reach our local beaches to nest.”
“The National Marine Fisheries Service has the responsibility to protect endangered and threatened turtle populations from destructive fishing practices,” said Cynthia Sarthou, Executive Director of the Gulf Restoration Network. “The public needs to know that no more sea turtles are killed just to put grouper on a dinner plate.”
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.
Conservation groups are calling on the new administration to halt the Gulf of Mexico bottom longline fishery until it can analyze what measures are necessary to follow the Endangered Species Act. The continued operation of the bottom longline fishery in the Gulf is likely to result in the continued death and injury of sea turtles. The loggerhead turtle faces an especially serious threat from Gulf longline fishing due to the severe nesting decline over recent years, according to research by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“In addition to loggerheads, the Kemp’s ridley population in the Gulf of Mexico is struggling to increase from numbers that threatened extinction in the mid-1980s,” said Carole Allen, Gulf office director at the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. “We simply cannot risk losing more sea turtles to longline fishing, which has shown no regard for endangered species.”
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.