Gulf Council Seeks Emergency Longline Closure to Save Turtles

TAMPA, Florida, February 4, 2009 (ENS) – Sea turtles in the eastern Gulf of Mexico could soon get more protection if the federal government approves an emergency request from a federal fisheries management agency to temporarily halt the use of fishing gear that injures and kills them.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council Thursday voted to request a temporary emergency rule prohibiting bottom longline reef fishing in waters less than 300 feet deep for the entire eastern Gulf of Mexico.

While sea turtles are not the longliners’ target species, the fishing gear still catches turtles in their offshore habitat on the west Florida shelf of the eastern Gulf.

Six species of sea turtles – loggerhead, leatherback, olive ridley, Kemp’s ridley,green, and hawksbill – that occur in the Gulf of Mexico are federally listed as either threatened or endangered

A 2006-2007 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service shows that the number of loggerhead sea turtles that have been caught in the bottom longline fishery exceeded authorized levels.

Loggerhead sea turtle on the shore of Tampa Bay (Photo by Dennis Adair)

Loggerhead sea turtles accounted for 799 of the 974 captured turtles in the government report, more than three times the number of loggerheads the Service authorized the fishery to take in 2005.

The temporary emergency rule would reduce the fishing impacts on this threatened species until the Gulf Fishery Management Council can further develop a reef fish plan amendment that will address the issue in the long term.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission today said it supports the council’s request.

“We are extremely pleased with and supportive of the Gulf council’s proposal to reduce sea turtle injury and mortality associated with this fishing activity,” said FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto.

If the NOAA Fisheries Service implements the Gulf council’s proposed emergency rule, it would be in effect for 180 days, and it could be extended for an additional 186 days.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is one of eight regional fishery management councils established by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act for the purpose of managing fisheries in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone.

States with voting representation on the council include Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi.

On January 13, conservation groups served the NOAA Fisheries Service with a 60 day notice of their intent to sue if the agency does not act immediately to protect sea turtles from longliners in the Gulf of Mexico.

The groups are seeking the kind of suspension that the council voted on Thursday to request.

Even though the bottom longline fishery has far exceeded the number of turtles it is allowed to take under the Endangered Species Act, to date the NOAA Fisheries Service has declined to close the fishery while it studies options for reducing turtle bycatch.

Now, under the Obama administration, its decision on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s request could be different.

“The National Marine Fisheries Service is responsible both for managing fisheries and for protecting endangered species,” said Sierra Weaver, an attorney with Defenders of Wildlife. “Our sincere hope is that the agency will take seriously its responsibility for the sea turtles threatened by longline fishing and will move quickly to protect them without the need for a court order.”

Click here to read the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s 88 page analysis of sea turtle bycatch in the Gulf’s reef fish bottom longline fishery.

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