Judge Orders Actions to Prevent Loggerhead Capture in Gulf Longline Fishery

Conservation groups scored a victory in court Tuesday to gain new protections for imperiled sea turtles from death and injury in the Gulf of Mexico bottom longline fishery for grouper, tilefish, and sharks. 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 adequately protect loggerhead sea turtles from capture and death in the fishery and refused to take a fresh look at the fishery’s impact on sea turtles after last year’s massive Gulf oil spill. Download the opinion here.

“Sea turtles and oil don’t mix,”said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network, based in Marin County, California.  “If we want sea turtles to survive and recover from the BP spill, we need to stop allowing hundreds to die a cruel inhumane death at the end of baited longline fishing gear.”

Thousands of loggerhead hatchlings were displaced and likely perished during the BP Oil spill, while hundreds of adult turtles continued to drown on fishing hooks – a double whammy for the population that nests along the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. The species has declined by 30-40 percent over the past decade and is now pending for listing as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

“The loggerhead was already in trouble when the BP oil spill hit,” said Teri Shore, Program Director at Turtle Island Restoration Network. “A whole generation of hatchlings may have been lost due to the spill while so many nesters have died in fisheries that they are sliding toward extinction.  Now the loggerheads might have a chance to recover from this double hit.”

In the case decided yesterday, Turtle Island Restoration Network along with Gulf and national conservation groups had challenged the agency’s decision to reopen the Gulf bottom longline fishery in 2010 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.  The fishery was closed down in 2009 for six months after it captured more than 8 times the number of sea turtles authorized by NMFS, but later re-opened without adequate protections for the declining loggerheads.

The court’s ruling yesterday  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 groups 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 coalition of conservation groups included Earthjustice, the Sea Turtle Conservancy, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Gulf Restoration Network and Turtle Island Restoration Network. They 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.

“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 the Florida-based Sea Turtle Conservancy. “This court ruling is an important victory because it orders NMFS to examine the cumulative impacts of the oil spill, habitat loss and other sea turtle threats before permitting this highly destructive Gulf longline fishery to continue killing so many turtles each and every year.”


Link to Court Opinion in Sea Turtle Conservancy v. Locke

Links to previous TIRN actions in December 2009 and April 2009.

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.

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.

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 NMFS has described as “an important sea turtle foraging habitat.”

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.

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.