The Caribbean Conservation Corporation and a small group of partner organizations notified the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in January that we are preparing to sue the agency if it does not act immediately to protect sea turtles being killed by the bottom longline fishery in the Gulf of Mexico. Specifically, we filed a "60-day notice letter" stating that NMFS was in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by allowing the continued operation of this fishery, which recent studies show had captured nearly 1,000 threatened and endangered sea turtles between July 2006 and the end of 2007. Under a three-year incidental capture authorization, bottom longliners are allowed to capture up to 85 loggerheads (42 lethal captures), 26 green turtles, 2 Kemp's ridleys, and 1 leatherback. In September 2008, NMFS reported results of a study conducted by observers placed onboard select fishing boats, which found the fishery had actually caught 974 hard-shelled turtles, including 799 loggerheads. Observers further reported that 83% of the captures they witnessed resulted in injury or death to the turtles. If the agency does not address these ESA violations within 60 days, CCC and others will proceed with the lawsuit.
The bottom longline fishery targets grouper, tilefish and other "reef fishes" in the shallow waters off the west coast of Florida. This section of the Gulf reef fish fishery also consists of vertical longlining and recreational fishing. The waters off the west coast of Florida are important habitat for sub-adult and breeding-age loggerheads that nest along the east and west coasts of Florida and in the Panhandle. Loggerheads are found in this area throughout the year. Bottom longline fishermen typically put out 4-10 miles of line set along the bottom of the reef, with up to 2,000 baited hooks that typically stay submerged for hours. Turtles caught on these lines drown because they cannot surface to breathe. Turtles are also captured on vertical longlines, but the rate of capture is much lower, and hooked turtles usually are able to surface to breathe.
Florida accounts for more than 90 percent of the loggerhead nesting in the United States, with a nesting aggregation considered to be one of the two largest remaining in the world. Mel Stark.
Since high levels of capture in bottom longlines were first reported, CCC and its partners—the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Gulf Restoration Network, and Turtle Island Restoration Network—have met with the acting head of NMFS several times. NMFS recognizes that significant changes are needed in the reef fish fishery and likely will propose new regulations to reduce the high levels of turtle capture sometime this summer. In December, Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, noting the importance of the waters off the west coast of Florida for sea turtles, urged NMFS to address this issue expeditiously. Most recently, in late January, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council voted for "an emergency rule that would prohibit bottom longline gear in waters less than 50 fathoms for the entire eastern Gulf of Mexico starting immediately upon implementation." Due to administrative procedures, however, this rule probably will not go into effect until May.
The shallow-water grouper fishery in the Gulf is annually closed from February 15 to March 15, but after March 15th fishing will resume. We have urged NMFS to suspend the bottom longline fishery until new rules are adopted later this year to ensure loggerheads and other sea turtles are adequately protected under the Endangered Species Act. Bycatch is especially high in the summer, and these new rules are not expected for at least the next four months. NMFS is obligated to provide this protection and has emergency authority under the ESA to do so. On other occasions NMFS has used this authority to close fisheries temporarily. The law is clearly on our side.
Newspaper accounts indicate that after March 16th the industry intends to "fish hard" before changes are implemented. This rodeo approach will result in foraging and breeding loggerheads being captured and killed. If NMFS does not close bottom longlining until new regulations are in place, we will pursue litigation to compel an interim closure.
Fishermen and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council have made numerous suggestions for ways to reduce sea turtle capture in bottom longlines. These recommendations include limiting the length of the lines to 2 or 3 miles so they can be retrieved one or two hours after setting; replacing squid bait, which is particularly attractive to turtles, with fish; restricting the fishery to deeper waters where turtles are less likely to be; and time and area closures. It is highly improbable, however, that these changes, even if implemented together, would reduce the number of turtles caught to avoid serious harm to the population. The conservation community has concluded bottom longliners will need to convert to vertical lines.
The 2008 Recovery Plan for the Northwest Atlantic Population of the Loggerhead Sea Turtle, along with a growing number of scientific papers, identify U.S. and international fisheries as important causes of the decline of nesting loggerheads in Florida. Loggerhead nesting has fallen by over 40% since 1998 on the same beaches where green turtle and leatherback nesting is increasing. The large number of juvenile and reproductive, adult loggerheads being injured or killed by the bottom longline fishery is likely a major contributor to this steep decline.
This situation demonstrates the failure of NMFS to identify and respond in a timely fashion to a fishery that is harming a large numbers of turtles. Better observer coverage would have identified this problem earlier. Although the agency is responsible for managing fisheries and protected resources, both of which are public resources, it often lacks the political will to protect sea turtles and other endangered species. This is a short-sighted approach to ecosystem management that puts protected species like sea turtles at risk.
Ongoing delays in regulating U.S. fisheries are undermining conservation – we are witnessing the cumulative effect of this situation on loggerhead populations now. Much attention has focused on bottom longlining in recent months, but CCC and other groups have dedicated considerable effort to promoting better regulations for other fisheries that currently capture and kill sea turtles, such as U.S. trawl fisheries. Since May 2007, we have been waiting for NMFS to propose a rule requiring turtle excluder devices (TEDs) in trawl nets. We are committed to making this happen in 2009.