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Longline grouper and tilefish fisheries’ bycatch of almost 1,000 threatened and endangered sea turles…

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Sadly, it is happening again…environmentalists demanding action to protect threatened and endangered species, a government bureaucracy insisting that further study is required while the species continue to spiral toward extinction.  But, what happens when the evidence to support regulation is “there,” right there in the bureaucracy’s own publications?  What happens is what happened on January 13, 2009, when a group of environmental groups delivered a 60-day intent to sue notice, required under the Endangered Species Act, to the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service.

What prompted the Center for Biological Diversity, the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, the Gulf Restoration Network, and the Turtle Island Restoration Network to deliver the intent to sue notice?  Longline grouper and tilefish fisheries’ bycatch of almost 1,000 threatened and endangered sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico, as documented by government observers over an 18-month period from July 2006 through the end of 2007.  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.

Bycatch – Is There Hope?

The following paragraphs can be found in a December 2008 document written and published by the NMFS, “Recovery Plan for the Northwest Atlantic Population of the Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta) Second Revision.”  The original of this document was written and published by the NMFS in 1984; the 1st revision in 1991…24 years from original issue to the 2nd revision, and 30 years from the date the Loggerhead sea turtles were officially listed under the Endangered Species Act.

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“Mortality resulting from commercial fisheries operations, both domestically and in international waters, ranks among the most significant threats to the species.  A variety of gears is used in commercial fisheries, including gillnets, trawls, hook and line (e.g., longlines), seines, dredges, and various types of pots/traps.  Among these, gillnets, longlines, and trawl gear collectively result in tens of thousands of loggerhead deaths annually throughout their range in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico (see for example, Lewison et al. 2004; NMFS 2002a, 2004b).

Bycatch – Death in the Seas

Considerable effort has been expended since the 1980s to document and address these serious mortality factors.  NMFS has implemented observer programs in many federally managed and some state managed fisheries to collect turtle bycatch data.  The most effective observer programs have been implemented in the longline fishery…

Efforts to reduce bycatch and mortality of loggerheads in fishing operations have focused on several areas.  NMFS, working with industry and other partners, has reduced bycatch by developing technological solutions to prevent capture or to allow turtles to escape without harm (e.g., TEDs), by implementing time and area closures to prevent interactions from occurring….and/or by modifying gear … circle hooks in the pelagic longline fishery.

Longline Fisheries: Observer programs have documented significant bycatch of loggerheads in the U.S. longline fishery operating in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.  In recent years, NMFS has dedicated significant funding and effort to address this bycatch issue.  In partnership with academia and industry, NMFS has funded and conducted field experiments in the northwest Atlantic Ocean to develop gear modifications that eliminate or significantly reduce loggerhead bycatch.  The experiments found that using large circle hooks in combination with finfish bait, as opposed to using “J” hooks and squid bait, significantly reduce loggerhead bycatch.”

A Reprieve for the Turtles

By the NMFS’s own study of Atlantic fisheries, “using large circle hooks in combination with finfish bait significantly reduce loggerhead bycatch” yet the hooks and bait are not mandated in the Gulf.  In fact, the NMFS issues exceptions to the sea turtle protections set forth under the Endangered Species Act; permitting the incidental take of approximately 250 Loggerheads by longline fisheries in 2005.  A year and a half later, almost 1,000 sea turtles were taken in the Gulf while the NMFS continued to study the problem of bycatch.

If the NMFS does not institute immediate measures to close the Gulf longline fishery while it continues to study the sea turtle bycatch issue, the coalition of environmental groups intends to pursue the lawsuit designed to force the NMFS to take the protective actions set forth under the Endangered Species Act including closure of fisheries.

“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.

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One has to wonder…30 years of writing and revising a recovery plan, a proven method of reducing Loggerhead bycatch documented by the agency charged with protecting them, thousands of turtles taken annually…yet the agency continues to study the problem; what are they waiting for?  It will be interesting to learn what defense the agency offers when this suit goes to court.

After 30 years as a wild and domestic animal rescuer, rehabber, and educator in the states, Becky Bauer became a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean.  She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.

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Becky Bauer is a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean. She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.

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