Groups Sue National Marine Fisheries Service to Protect Sea Turtles

By April 15, 2009Sea Turtles

Seek Emergency Action to Correct Violation of Endangered Species Act

HOUSTON, TEXAS – Turtle Island Restoration Network and a coalition of conservation organizations are suing the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to force action quickly to protect threatened and endangered sea turtles from death and injury in the Gulf of Mexico bottom longline fishery. New information from NMFS estimates that longline fishing vessels in the Gulf caught nearly 1,000 turtles between July 2006 and December 2008 – more than eight times the number allowed, in viloation of the Endangered Species Act. See the complaint..

Conservation groups (Turtle Island Restoration Network, Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Gulf Restoration Project, Florida Wildlife Federation and the Caribbean Conservation Corporation) are calling on the Obama administration to halt the Gulf of Mexico bottom longline fishery until it can analyze what measures are necessary to follow the Endangered Species Act.

“We simply cannot risk losing more sea turtles to longline fishing, which has shown no regard for endangered species.”  said Carole Allen in Houston, Gulf office director at Turtle Island Restoration Network/HEART (Help Save Endangered Animals – Ridley Turtles. “”In addition to endangered loggerheads, the Kemp’s ridley population in the Gulf of Mexico is struggling to increase from numbers that threatened extinction in the mid-1980s.”

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.

“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.”

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.

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.

In addition to the high rate of capture from the bottom longline fishery, other troubling news fromFlorida researchers has documented a startling decline in loggerhead sea turtle nesting over the past decade.

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.