Conservation Groups Demand Immediate Protection for Sea Turtles Jeopardized by Commercial Bottom Longline Fishing off Florida’s West Coast

Date: January 13, 2009
Contacts: David Godfrey, Caribbean Conservation Corporation, (352) 373-6441
Andrea Treece, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 436-9682 x 306
Sierra Weaver, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-3274
Steve Roady, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500
Cynthia Sarthou, Gulf Restoration Network, (504) 525-1528 x 202
Carole Allen, Turtle Island Restoration Network, (281) 444-6204

SAN FRANCISCO — A coalition of conservation groups notified the federal government’s National Marine Fisheries Service today of their intent to sue if the agency does not act immediately to protect imperiled sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico. The groups’ action comes after fisheries observer data revealed that the Gulf of Mexico bottom longline fishery, which targets reef fish like grouper and tilefish, resulted in the capture of nearly 1,000 threatened and endangered sea turtles between July 2006 and the end of 2007. The coalition asks that the commercial bottom longline fishery be suspended until the National Marine Fisheries Service meets its legal obligations under the Endangered Species Act to ensure that the fishery does not imperil sea turtles and other threatened species in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Allowing this fishery to continue to kill threatened and endangered turtles while the government studies the problem is irresponsible and illegal. It’s like refusing to turn off a leaking gas valve when you’re trying to put out a house fire. The law and the science are clear: These animals have to be protected right now,” said Andrea Treece, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Of particular concern for the groups are loggerhead sea turtles, which accounted for 799 of the 974 captured turtles in the government analysis. This is more than three times the number of loggerheads the Service authorized the fishery to take in 2005 and may well jeopardize the species. Loggerhead nesting populations in Florida have dropped by over 40 percent over the past 10 years. The large number of juvenile and reproductive adult turtles injured or killed by the bottom longline fishery is likely contributing to this steep decline.

“It’s devastating to think about all the hard work and progress we’ve made safeguarding Florida’s loggerheads and their nesting beaches being destroyed by this rampant level of take,” said David Godfrey, executive director of the Florida-based Caribbean Conservation Corporation. “We must stop and reassess the impacts of this fishery before it’s too late.”

The Gulf of Mexico bottom longline fishery operates primarily off the west coast of Florida, an area that also provides key habitat for several sea turtle species, including loggerhead, Kemp’s ridley, and green turtles. Bottom longline gear generally consists of a four- to 10-mile-long mainline made of steel cable or monofilament with up to 2,100 hooks. Sea turtles are caught on the lines when they attempt to eat the bait from hooks or become entangled when swimming near a line. Unable to surface for breath, they suffer injury or death.

“The use of longlining in the Gulf of Mexico is tragic. Loggerheads, Kemp’s ridleys and other sea turtles die caught by a fishing method that has no regard for the waste it entails and the death of endangered species. It reminds many of us of the slaughter of sea turtles drowning in shrimp trawls before Turtle Excluder Devices were required,” said Carole Allen, Gulf office director of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.

Even though the bottom longline fishery has far exceeded the number of turtles it is allowed to take under the Endangered Species Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service has refused to close the fishery while it studies options for reducing turtle take.

“Now that the National Marine Fisheries Service knows the longline fleet is jeopardizing the future of the turtle populations they have a duty to act immediately,” said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network. “There are other ways to catch the same fish without killing turtles. The Service needs to follow the precedent set by Gulf shrimpers and require a change in gear now.”

The fishery is also known to catch endangered smalltooth sawfish and could affect staghorn and elkhorn coral, which are also protected under the Endangered Species Act.

“The National Marine Fisheries Service is responsible both for managing fisheries and for protecting endangered species,” said Sierra Weaver, an attorney with Defenders of Wildlife. “Our sincere hope is that the agency will take seriously its responsibility for the sea turtles threatened by longline fishing and will move quickly to protect them without the need for a court order.”

Download a copy of the 60 Day Notice Letter.

The Sea Turtle Conservancy, formerly known as the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, is a not-for-profit, 501(c)3 organization based in Florida with offices and projects in several other locations. The Sea Turtle Conservancy is the oldest and most accomplished sea turtle organization in the world. Since its founding in 1959, the Sea Turtle Conservancy’s work has greatly improved the survival outlook for several species of sea turtles. The Sea Turtle Conservancy has as its mission the protection of sea turtles and the habitats upon which they depend. To achieve its mission, the Sea Turtle Conservancy uses research, habitat protection, public education, community outreach, networking and advocacy as its basic tools. These tools are applied in both international and domestic programs focusing on geographic areas that are globally important to sea turtle survival. For more information, visit the STC website or call (800) 678-7853.