Turtle safety puts shallow Gulf of Mexico off-limits to longliners

WASHINGTON, DC, April 30, 2009 (ENS) – An emergency fisheries closure to protect threatened sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico was announced Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA. Conservation groups were pleased with the move, but commercial fishermen said many small businesses will go under as a result.

The six-month closure imposed by NOAA’s Fisheries Service will require the commercial reef fish longline fleet to fish seaward of a line approximating the 50-fathom (300 foot) contour in the Gulf of Mexico. Current regulations require this fleet to fish seaward of 20-fathoms.

A loggerhead turtle in shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico (Photo by Marco Giuliano courtesy NOAA)

The temporary closure rule takes effect on May 18.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council requested this emergency rule after a NOAA observer study documented the reef fish longline fleet was catching and killing too many threatened loggerhead sea turtles while fishing for other species.

In mid-April, several environmental groups sued NOAA’s Fisheries Service, also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, to force a closure of the fishery for turtle protection.

A Federal Register notice that will be published Friday, explains that further bottom longline fishing could jeopardize the existence of loggerhead sea turtles “unless action is taken to reduce the fishery’s impact on this threatened species.”

The emergency rule will be in effect for 180 days and can be extended for up to an additional 186 days. During the closure, NOAA Fisheries and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council will determine whether and how the fishery can operate while ensuring the survival of the turtles over the long term.

“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.”

This emergency rule will affect longline fishermen who target shallow water grouper species, such as red grouper. Most shallow water grouper fishing occurs within the 50-fathom contour off the west Florida shelf – an important sea turtle feeding area – where most of the sea turtle bycatches happen.

The emergency rule also prohibits all reef fish longline fishing east of 85 degrees 30 minutes west longitude in the Gulf of Mexico after the quotas for deep water grouper and tilefish are reached.

Two fifty-foot bottom longliners in Cortez, Florida in the Gulf of Mexico (Photo by William Folsom courtesy NOAA Fisheries)

The Southern Offshore Fishing Association and The Gulf Fishermen’s Association said in a joint statement Wednesday that commercial grouper longline fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico are working with scientists, managers, environmentalists and the National Marine Fisheries Service to minimize the number of sea turtles that are incidentally caught on fishermen’s hooks.

Aboard about 100 boats, most based in Florida, longline fishermen harvest most of the grouper for U.S. seafood restaurants and consumers by setting lines of a thousand baited hooks across the seabed.

Bobby Spaeth, executive director of the Southern Offshore Fishing Association says the number of loggerhead turtles caught on longline hooks is “small, less than 350 per year, or about 0.1 percent of the western Atlantic loggerhead turtles taken by all fisheries combined, and most are released alive.”

In New Orleans earlier this month, representatives of Florida’s commercial longline fishery wrote an historic agreement with the environmental organizations Ocean Conservancy and Oceana that would see the number of boats in the fishery halved, the use of squid bait banned, and some of the best fishing grounds closed for the summer months when turtles are more vulnerable.

Spaeth calls these restrictions “painful” but says the compromise will allow many Florida fishermen, their families and the shore side businesses that they support to remain viable.

The agreement was accepted by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council as its preferred option for further development, though final decisions await an opportunity for the public to comment and will not be implemented until 2010.

“Unfortunately, this ground-breaking progress was today undermined by the NMFS, which announced an ‘emergency’ closure of the fishery for more than five months. We cannot sustain this blow,” said Spaeth. “This fishery is made up of many small Florida businesses. Most could barely survive being shut down for two months, never mind five.”

“This agreement signifies a willingness for different interest groups to come together to find solutions that consider the best interests of both the turtles and the fishing fleet,” said Vicki Cornish, Ocean Conservancy’s vice president of marine wildlife conservation. “The agreement not only helps to forge a way forward on what has been a very contentious issue, but also lays a solid foundation for our groups to work together in the future for better fisheries, safer and better gear to protect turtles, and a healthier Gulf of Mexico.”

But the conservation groups that sued the federal government on behalf of the sea turtles were pleased with the emergency closure. “Today is a great victory for those who believe in protecting sea turtles from unnecessary harm and illegal capture to ensure their continued survival in the wild,” said Marydele Donnelly, international policy director with Caribbean Conservation Corporation, one of the plaintiff groups.

She commended the new NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco for setting a new course for the agency that relies on sound science to manage oceans and protect marine wildlife.

“This temporary closure gives sea turtles a much-needed reprieve and gives the agency time to make scientifically sound decisions regarding the long-term operation of the fishery,” said Andrea Treece, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, another of the plaintiff groups. “More sea turtles will now have a chance to make it back to their nesting beaches — and even just look for food — without getting caught up in longlines.”

“After years of delay and the death of hundreds of turtles, it’s great to know that protections are finally on their way,” said Sierra Weaver, an attorney with Defenders of Wildlife, another plaintiff group. “This closure will insure that the fishery can operate without threatening these species with extinction.”

Loggerhead sea turtles are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The Fisheries Service is implementing the emergency rule in accordance with both the Endangered Species Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which requires that conservation and management measures minimize bycatch of non-target species and minimize mortality when bycatch cannot be avoided.

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