Information About Sea Turtles: Threats from Commercial Longline Fisheries

The Problem: Each year, sea turtles are accidentally captured, injured or killed by fishermen. Many of these injuries and deaths take place while turtles are migrating through fishing areas. The turtles, attracted to the bait, get caught on the hooks used to catch fish. A long line is a huge fishing line that can have thousands of hooks and lures and can stretch for several miles behind boats. Many of the fish that are being sought after live in the same areas as turtles. When a turtle is caught unintentionally the hook can kill them because it could prevent them from getting to the surface to get air. Furthermore, if they don’t die from drowning, the hook can be permanently debilitating because it can get lodged in their digestive systems and eventually cause a much slower death. As it stands, the global fishing fleet is currently 2.5 times larger than what oceans can sustainably support, which shows how big a threat commercial fishing practices pose to turtles. One study stated every year longliners set more than one billion baited hooks, clearly a practice that threatens the survival of sea turtles.

Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced an emergency rule to protect threatened sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico. The temporary rule, which took effect on May 18, will require the commercial reef fish longline fleet to fish seaward of a line approximating the 50-fathom contour in the Gulf of Mexico. Current regulations require this fleet to fish seaward of 20-fathoms. The ban comes after a NMFS report estimated that as many as 1,000 sea turtles were caught in the fishery over an 18 month period.

Species Affected: All sea turtles are affected by commercial fisheries. Loggerheads and leatherbacks have the greatest risk because of their feeding habitats.

The Solution: :

  • Make sure that the fish you buy from your local grocery store are caught by these turtle-friendly fisheries;
  • Inform and encourage family and friends to purchase seafood from responsible fisheries;
  • Petition the government to continually inspect fishing vessels to ensure they are following the protection laws.

Case Study: A recent study by Duke University found that 250,000 loggerhead and 60,000 leatherback turtles are estimated to be inadvertently snared each year by commercial longline fishing. This study was the first global assessment of the problem. The data was collected from 13 nations with fishing information available. The study also reported that the restrictions on fishing from the U.S. only account for about two percent of longline fishing and loggerhead turtles are 10 times more likely to get caught because of their wanting to eat the bait. This indicates that global action is necessary to alter the damages of longline fishing.

In a study conducted by the NOAA Fisheries Pascagoula Laboratory and the NOAA Fisheries Miami Laboratory, in cooperation with Blue Water Fishermen’s Association, encounters with leatherback and loggerhead turtles were reduced by 65 and 90 percent, by switching from the traditional hook to the larger circle hooks. This research was such a success that NOAA Fisheries now requires the use of these new technologies in U.S. longline fisheries in both the Atlantic and Pacific. Specifically, U.S. longline fishermen in the Pacific are now required to use circle hooks instead of the standard industry J-hook and squid bait and are required to carry certain types of equipment and utilize handling protocols to facilitate the safe release of sea turtles.

Related links: