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Emergency Closure Stops Longline Fishing in the Gulf of Mexico

Action Required to Prevent Deaths of Threatened and Endangered Sea Turtles
The National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) has ordered a 6-month emergency closure of the Bottom Longline fishery in the Gulf of Mexico to protect imperiled sea turtles from capture and death in the fishery. During the closure, which will go into effect May 16, NMFS will determine whether and how the fishery can operate while ensuring the survival of the turtles over the long term.

NMFS is closing the fishery because its data indicate the fishery had captured more than 8 times the number of sea turtles authorized previously by NMFS in its 2005 biological opinion. A Federal Register notice that will be published on Friday, May 1st, 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.”

Sea Turtle Restoration Project, Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and a coalition of conservation groups -Caribbean Conservation Corporation, Florida Wildlife Federation and Gulf Restoration Network – had sued NMFS in mid-April to seek protection for these imperiled animals and requested the emergency closure implemented today by NMFS.

“We are pleased that National Marine Fisheries Service is taking action to stop the longline fishery from killing loggerhead and other sea turtles on the west coast of Florida,” said Carole Allen, Gulf Office Director of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. “Research has indicated the need for this action for a long time.”

“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 to look for food – without getting caught up in longlines.”

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, NMFS 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, NMFS states that it plans to complete a new biological opinion that will evaluate the impact of the fishery and insure 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.

NMFS 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. NMFS provides notice that it may renew the closure for a longer period of time if necessary for NMFS 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.

Background

NMFS took this action in part because in 2005, NMFS 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, NMFS 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 NMFS has described as “an important sea turtle foraging habitat.”