Emergency Action Taken to Protect Threatened and Endangered Sea Turtles

Issue 2, 2009 Articles:

* Emergency Action Taken to Protect Threatened and Endangered Sea Turtles
* Florida Legislative Update

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Emergency Action Taken to Protect Threatened and Endangered Sea Turtles

By Marydele Donnelly

In April 15, 2009, the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, along with several other environmental organizations, sued the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to force quick action to protect sea turtles that are being imperiled by longline fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. The groups urged the federal agency to impose immediate protections for the endangered and threatened sea turtles that are being injured and killed by the Gulf of Mexico bottom longline reef fish fishery.

Two weeks after being sued, NMFS ordered an emergency closure of the fishery in the Gulf of Mexico to protect sea turtles. During the closure, which will prohibit fishing in waters less than 50 fathoms (300 feet), NMFS will determine whether and how the fishery can operate while ensuring the survival of the turtles over the long term.

NMFS data indicate the fishery had captured more than eight times the number of sea turtles authorized previously by its 2005 biological opinion. A Federal Register notice that was published on Friday, May 1st, explained 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.”

“This is a great victory for those who believe in protecting sea turtles from unnecessary harm and illegal capture to ensure their continued survival in the wild,” said Marydele Donnelly, CCC International Policy Director. “We commend NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco for setting a new course for NMFS that relies on sound science to manage our oceans and protect marine wildlife for the future of all Americans.”

There has been a decline of over 40% in Florida’s loggerhead turtle nesting during the last decade; without a doubt, fisheries are a culprit in these declines. The closure of the bottom longline reef fishery in the Gulf of Mexico begins to address one of the greatest threats to sea turtles in the United States and improves this species’ chance at survival.

Bottom longline reef fishing is a 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. Many times the turtles drown or are unable to recover from the extreme physiological stress and die soon after being released from the longlines.

The closure, which became effective May 18, 2009, will last for 6 months, or until the NMFS completes a new biological opinion. The biological opinion will evaluate the impact of the fishery and insure that it is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the captured sea turtle species. 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 stateed 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. Consideration for such long-term measures on a permanent basis would be implemented after a period of public notice and comment.