Sea turtle groups, nesting beach volunteers, and researchers support national effort to stop weak rules proposed by federal fishery agency

Today sea turtle conservationists from across the country joined other ocean advocacy groups in calling for the withdrawal of proposed new federal fishery regulations that would weaken protections for sea turtles. They are swelling the ranks of the more than 100 oceans organizations opposing the new regulations. (See the sea turtle comment letter.)

“Thousands of sea turtles die every day in fisheries and we need far more, not less, protections” said Teri Shore, Program Director for Sea Turtle Restoration Project in Forest Knolls, CA. “The death toll from the Pacific swordfish fishery alone is horrendous.” Scientists estimate that 20,000 endangered leatherbacks were hooked and as many as 3,200 killed in the Pacific in 2000.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is taking public comment on new environmental rules proposed under the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Act that if implemented will undermine the longstanding and important National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The deadline is August 12, 2008.

Already the Sea Turtle Restoration Project (STRP) has secured support from more than a dozen sea turtle organizations, nesting beach volunteers, researchers and resource managers to oppose the proposed weakening of fishing regulations. Nearly 1,500 STRP members have sent in comments opposing the change and the public can still do so by going to the STRP Action Center.

Without a full environmental review, decision makers and watchdog organizations would not be provided with the critical environmental analysis needed to understand the potential harm to leatherbacks and other marine life from existing, expanding or new fisheries.

“If we lose NEPA, we lose an important tool used to protect the sea turtles and our oceans,” said Todd Steiner, Executive Director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. The law under attack is the one used to stop the indiscriminate slaughter of sea turtles in the Hawaiian longline fishery, resulting in important protections that have greatly reduced sea turtle deaths, yet still allowed the fishery to continue through gear modifications and carefully crafted time-area closures. When sea turtle catch limits were reached in 2006, strong regulations required that the fishery be suspended to protect endangered species.

The new rules would also exempt “experimental” fishing permits from environmental review. “This could be disastrous for sea turtles as we have seen attempt after attempt by the Bush Administration to concoct so-called experiments to open new harmful fisheries at the behest of the fishing industry,” Shore said. Right now federally fishery managers are pushing to open harmful new longline swordfish fisheries along the West Coast of the U. S. in a Leatherback Conservation Zone under the pretext of an “experimental” permit – one that has been widely opposed by scientists, conservation groups and the states of California and Oregon as well as the public.