While writing this, the fifth chapter of our series on imperiled sea turtles, the calendar rolled over to May 18, 2009, a date of great importance to sea turtles’ survival. May 18th was the date the United States’ National Marine Fisheries Service initiated an emergency 180-day closure on shallow water (defined as water less than 300 feet), longline fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Additionally, the closure provides some protection for deep water reef habitats by banning all reef fish longline fisheries east of 85 degrees 30 minutes west longitude in the Gulf of Mexico once quotas for deepwater grouper and tilefish are fulfilled.
According to rules set forth in the emergency closure, the result of a lawsuit brought by seven environmental groups under the endangered species act in April 2009, the NMFS and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council are to “determine whether and how the fishery can operate while ensuring the survival of the turtles over the long term”. While the initial closure covers 180 days, the emergency ruling allows for an extension of an additional 186 days.
"We are working closely with the council and constituents to find more permanent solutions to protect sea turtles affected by this fishing gear," said Roy Crabtree, NOAA’s Fisheries Service southeast regional administrator. "I hope we can identify options that not only provide sea turtles the protection they need, but minimize the economic affects to the fishing industry."
In the April 2009 lawsuit, the seven plaintiffs presented findings from an 18-month survey of longline fisheries in the Gulf that demonstrated their devastating effects on sea turtle populations. Government observers documented longline fisheries’ bycatch of almost 1,000 threatened and endangered sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico over an 18-month period from July 2006 through the end of 2007. A staggering 80% of those turtles were Loggerheads, listed as threatened, whose nesting populations in Florida have shown a 40% decline in the past 10 years. The remaining 20% were critically endangered Kemp’s Ridley and endangered Green sea turtles. The Gulf coast of Florida is vital nesting habitat for all three species.
Prior to the emergency closure, in early May, a group of Florida commercial fisheries representatives and two environmental groups, Oceana and the Ocean Conservancy, wrote and presented an unprecedented historic agreement to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. This agreement provides for a 50% reduction in number of commercial longline fishing boats in the Gulf, eliminates the use of squid bait (fin fish bait drastically reduced sea turtle bycatch in the Atlantic), and allows summer closure of fishing grounds frequented by sea turtles when they are most vulnerable.
Although accepted as the GMFMC’s “preferred option for further development,” this agreement will first be presented for public comment, and implementation will not take place before 2010.
March 2009 was a good month for sea turtles, specifically the critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtles of the Dominican Republic. TRAFFIC, an international wildlife trade network, surveyed souvenir shops in the Dominican Republic in 2006 and found a staggering 23,000 items made from Hawksbill turtle shells. In March of this year, TRAFFIC personnel published the results of a second survey conducted in February 2009 wherein they found only 135 turtle shell souvenirs for sale. Why this change?
The drastic reduction is credited to the DR government’s crackdown on the illegal taking and sales of threatened and endangered sea turtles. To complement the crackdown while providing a source of revenue to the tourist trade vendors, the DR government encouraged the substitution of cow horn and bone in the creation of souvenirs—a substitute material that carves and polishes as well, and as attractively, as turtle shell and even ivory.
“We warmly congratulate the Government of the Dominican Republic on their decisive action that has virtually eliminated the blatant illegal souvenir trade in hawksbill turtle shells,” said Adrian Reuter, TRAFFIC’s Representative in Mexico.
“This sets an important conservation example for the region, showing that there are solutions that benefit wildlife and people, especially local communities that rely on tourism.”
The Dominican Republic has set a fine example by enforcing laws designed to protect endangered sea turtles while preserving the livelihoods of those who depend upon the tourist trade. We, as individuals, can also help protect the rapidly dwindling sea turtle populations by avoiding jewelry and curios made from tortoiseshell and not buying sea turtle meat, soup, eggs, facial creams, shells, leathers, or boots, handbags and other goods made from sea turtle skin.
Sadly, these items remain available if one asks the “right” questions. And a search of the internet brings up sites offering alleged “antique” turtle shell jewelry and combs along with “don’t ask—don’t tell” references from travelers who dined on sea turtle meat supposedly within the past few years while vacationing in an easily accessible chain of islands not far off the US coast.
But, beware…it is illegal to possess sea turtle parts, as one California woman discovered in May of this year when the tortoise shell guitar picks she imported from China were seized. After paying a $10,000 fine, she will spend the next 10 months under house arrest. While she was caught and is paying a price, the fine and arrest will not bring back the sea turtle and it will never produce offspring. How many dozens, if not hundreds, of sea turtles did those guitar picks represent?
Becky Bauer became a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean after 30 years as a wild and domestic animal rescuer, rehabber, and educator in the states. She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.