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Date of Issue: February 04, 2009

Groups threaten suit to protect turtles


A coalition of conservation groups recently announced their intent to sue if the federal government does not act immediately to protect sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico.

The groups’ announcement comes after fisheries observer data revealed that the Gulf of Mexico bottom long-line 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.

Last week, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council voted to banish long-line grouper boats to water 300 feet or deeper for five months, beginning in late spring or early summer. The National Fisheries Service still must draft and publish the measure before it goes into effect.

Representatives in the commercial fishing and the seafood industries said such a rule would cause economic harm, and possibly put some out of business.

Karen Bell of Bell Fish Co. in Cortez said that she could not believe such a longline ban could happen.

“Where is the significance to people?” she asked. “We are what feeds people, and they keep hacking away at us.”

She said Cortez has about 25 longline grouper fishing boats, with three to four people working each boat. All will be out of work if the longline ban is enacted.

“There are no red grouper in more than 300 feet of water,” Bell said of the most popular of the grouper, found on restaurant menus throughout the state.

“We’re going to fight this,” she said.

But the rule has the support of environmental groups that maintain the longliners catch and kill turtles.

“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 environmental groups are loggerhead sea turtles, which accounted for 799 of the 974 captured turtles in the government analysis. Loggerheads nest on Anna Maria Island beaches, as well as many other beaches on Florida’s coastline.

The number of captured loggerheads is more than three times the number of loggerheads the government authorized the fishery to take in 2005, according to the environmental groups.

 Loggerhead nesting populations in Florida have dropped by more than 40 percent over the past 10 years.

“It’s devastating to think about all the hard work and progress we have made in 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 long-line fishery operates primarily off the west coast of Florida.

Bottom long-line gear generally consists of a mainline made of steel cable or monofilament with up to 2,100 hooks. Turtles can get caught on the lines when they attempt to eat the bait from hooks or become entangled when swimming near a line.

Earlier this year, the federal government released the final version of its plan for the recovery of the Northwest Atlantic loggerhead.

The revised plan reviews and discusses the species ecology, population status and trends, and identifies threats to the loggerhead turtle in the northwestern Atlantic.

The plan lays out a recovery strategy to address the threats and includes recovery goals and criteria. In addition, the plan identifies actions needed to address the threats to the species and achieve recovery. 

An initial recovery plan for the loggerhead turtle was approved in September 1984. The initial plan was a multi-species plan for all six species of sea turtles occurring in the U.S.

In 1991, a separate recovery plan for the U.S. Atlantic population of the loggerhead turtle was approved.

In 2001, NOAA’s Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which share federal jurisdiction for sea turtles, initiated the process to revise the loggerhead plan for a second time.

This revised plan is significant in that it identifies five unique recovery units, which comprise the population of loggerhead turtles in the Northwest Atlantic, and describes specific recovery criteria for each recovery unit, according to NOAA.