Conservation groups scored a victory in court Tuesday in their effort to protect imperiled sea turtles from death and injury from the Gulf of Mexico bottom longline fishery. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) violated the law when it failed to consider a reasonable range of fishery management alternatives to protect loggerhead sea turtles and refused to take a fresh look at the fishery’s impact on sea turtles after last year’s massive Gulf oil spill.
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.
After the agency determined that the bottom longline fishery had been capturing and killing hundreds more sea turtles than was allowed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a coalition of Gulf and national conservation groups sued NMFS in 2009 and it then temporarily closed the bottom longline fishery. In 2009, NMFS reopened the fishery while instituting new measures under the ESA, including limiting bottom longline fishing to an area outside of 35 fathoms shoreward, which is a significant part of the loggerhead sea turtle’s Gulf residence area. Then in 2010, the agency issued new regulations that weakened this 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.
The coalition, which includes Earthjustice, the Sea Turtle Conservancy, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Gulf Restoration Network and Turtle Island Restoration Network, had previously filed suit against NMFS to protect the threatened loggerhead turtle from longline fishing, a dangerous fishing practice that catches large numbers of non-target animals that cannot escape the bottom longline hooks. In the case decided yesterday, these Gulf and national conservation groups challenged the agency’s decision to reopen the bottom longline fishery despite finding that it would kill hundreds of loggerheads per year in a turtle population that has experienced a severe nesting decline over the past decade. They also challenged the agency’s failure to engage in the required scientific consultation after the oil spill which is needed to determine whether NMFS should require additional protection. These actions by NMFS allowed the injuring or killing of over seven hundred loggerheads through 2011 and another six hundred thereafter every three years—which is more than seven times as many as the bottom longline fishery vessels were allowed to capture or kill under the previous rules.
The court’s ruling highlighted that the NMFS admitted that the oil spill was an “unprecedented” event that has “resulted in adverse effects on [ESA] listed sea turtles,” and that “oil spills of the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon MC252 spill were not considered” in the 2009 biological opinion. Therefore, the court determined, the agency’s “failure to reinitiate consultation violated Defendants’ continuing duty to assess jeopardy under the implementing regulations of the ESA.” (P. 22.) The court also found that NMFS had failed to take a “hard look” at the option of continuing its prior ESA rule, which protected loggerhead sea turtles in a significant part of their Gulf residence area, before deciding what new action to take to regulate the fishery. (P. 25).
“The court confirmed that NMFS’s decision not to take a fresh look at the fishery’s impacts on a sea turtle population whose home has since been ravaged by the largest oil spill in U.S. history violates the law and threatens to push this already declining species closer to the brink,” said Andrea Treece, staff attorney with Earthjustice. “This fishery affects one of the world’s most important loggerhead nesting populations and some of the most critical feeding areas for these turtles. If this iconic species is ever to recover, NMFS must offer them real protection—not trap their feeding grounds with hooks and tangling lines.”
“Problems with loggerhead turtle bycatch plagued the Florida bottom longline fleet even before the 2010 Gulf drilling disaster made life harder for this threatened species,” said Cynthia Sarthou, Executive Director of the Gulf Restoration Network. “In the wake of this disaster more must be done to protect and restore our marine wildlife.”
“This is a big win for sea turtles,” says Sierra Weaver, staff attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “It takes little more than common sense to know that the government has to reconsider the impact of the fisheries on struggling sea turtle populations in the Gulf in light of the current conditions caused by the enormous Deepwater Horizon blowout.”
“It’s time for the government to step up to the plate when it comes to protecting loggerhead sea turtles and their habitat in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Miyoko Sakashita, attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “At a time when they’re already threatened by pollution and climate change, we need to protect as many turtles as possible from avoidable death and injury in fishing gear.”
“Sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico, especially loggerhead turtles, face a gauntlet of threats that are rapidly reversing decades of progress in recovering these species,” said David Godfrey, executive director of Florida-based Sea Turtle Conservancy. “This court ruling is an important victory because it will require NMFS to examine the cumulative impacts of the oil spill, habitat loss and other sea turtle threats before deciding whether to permit this highly destructive Gulf longline fishery to continue killing so many turtles each and every year.”
“Sea turtles and oil don’t mix,” said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. “If we want sea turtles to survive and recover from the oil spill, we need to stop allowing hundreds to die a cruel inhumane death at the end of baited longline fishing gear.”
In 2009, NMFS itself issued a report finding that loggerheads in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean are in danger of extinction and that capture by vessels in commercial fisheries is a primary threat to loggerheads. Loggerhead nesting in Florida has declined by more than 40 percent during the past decade. In addition to loggerheads, the court’s ruling also ensures that NMFS must fully consider the fishery’s potential impacts after the oil spill on other endangered sea turtle species that inhabit the Gulf, including kemp’s ridley, green, and hawksbill sea turtles.
Bottom longline fishing is a fishing process that drags 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, that cannot escape the longline hooks. Injuries from these hooks affect a sea turtle’s ability to breathe, 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.
Members of the coalition have also brought other successful lawsuits against NMFS in recent years to protect the threatened loggerhead turtle from longline fishing. In addition, these groups have urged NMFS to recognize that loggerhead sea turtles are endangered, rather than just threatened as NMFS initially found in 1978. NMFS proposed this action in 2010, but has not yet made a final decision on whether to recognize loggerheads as endangered.