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Loggerhead Sea Turtle Deaths Prompt Lawsuit Threat
GAINESVILLE, Florida, January 23, 2009 (ENS) - A coalition of conservation groups has notified the National Marine Fisheries Service of its intent to file a lawsuit as early as March if the agency does not act immediately to protect imperiled sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico.

The action comes after fisheries observer data showed that the Gulf of Mexico bottom longline fishery, which harvests reef fish like grouper and tilefish, resulted in the capture of nearly 1,000 threatened and endangered sea turtles between July 2006 and the end of 2007.

The coalition urges that the commercial bottom longline fishery be suspended until the federal agency meets its legal obligations under the Endangered Species Act to ensure that the fishery does not imperil sea turtles and other threatened species in the Gulf of Mexico.

All six species of sea turtles occurring in the United States are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Loggerhead sea turtle in Boynton Beach, Florida (Photo by PelagicSal)

Even though the fishery has far exceeded the number of turtles it is allowed to take under the Endangered Species Act, the Fisheries Service, has declined to close the fishery while it studies options for reducing turtle take, a decision the conservation groups claim is illegal.

"Allowing this fishery to continue to kill threatened and endangered turtles while the government studies the problem is irresponsible and illegal," said Andrea Treece, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

"Now that the National Marine Fisheries Service knows the longline fleet is jeopardizing the future of the turtle populations they have a duty to act immediately," said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network.

Loggerhead sea turtles are of greatest concern to the groups because this species accounted for 799 of the 974 captured turtles in the government analysis. This is more than three times the number of loggerheads the Service authorized the fishery to take in 2005.

Loggerhead nesting populations in Florida have dropped by 41 percent over the past 10 years. The groups say the large number of juvenile and reproductive adult turtles injured or killed by the bottom longline fishery is likely contributing to this steep decline.

"It's devastating to think about all the hard work and progress we've made safeguarding Florida's loggerheads and their nesting beaches being destroyed by this rampant level of take," said David Godfrey, executive director of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation based in Gainsville. "We must stop and reassess the impacts of this fishery before it's too late."

The Gulf of Mexico bottom longline fishery operates primarily off the west coast of Florida, an area that provides key habitat for several sea turtle species, including loggerhead, Kemp's ridley, and green turtles.

Bottom longliners lay a mainline up to 10 miles long with as many as 2,100 baited hooks. Sea turtles are caught when they attempt to eat the bait or become entangled when swimming near a line.

"The use of longlining in the Gulf of Mexico is tragic. Loggerheads, Kemp's ridleys and other sea turtles die caught by a fishing method that has no regard for the waste it entails and the death of endangered species," said Carole Allen, Gulf office director of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. "It reminds many of us of the slaughter of sea turtles drowning in shrimp trawls before Turtle Excluder Devices were required."

A Turtle Excluder Device is a grid of bars fitted into a trawl net. Shrimp pass through the bars and are caught in the bag end of the trawl. When larger animals, such as sea turtles are caught in the trawl they strike the bars and are ejected through the opening.

"There are other ways to catch the same fish without killing turtles," said Sarthou. "The Service needs to follow the precedent set by Gulf shrimpers and require a change in gear now."

Last month the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a revised Recovery Plan for the Northwest Atlantic Population of the loggerhead sea turtle, the first revision since 1991.

The recovery plan identifies 208 actions needed to achieve recovery of the Northwest Atlantic population of the loggerhead sea turtle, including new regulations to require turtle excluder devices in fisheries where they are not now required.

"Loggerhead sea turtles face many domestic and international threats, and thousands die around the world every year," said Jim Balsiger, acting assistant administrator for NOAA's Fisheries Service. "This plan will help our agency and our partners to conserve and recover the species by providing a blueprint to address threats in the northwestern Atlantic."

The northwestern Atlantic sea turtle population includes the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Florida accounts for more than 90 percent of the loggerhead nesting in the United States, and is one of the two largest remaining loggerhead nesting locations in the world. The other is on the beaches of Oman on the Arabian Peninsula.

Loggerheads dug more than 35,000 nests on Florida beaches last year, more than in 2007, which were the lowest nesting levels in the 20 year history of the state's monitoring program. But this increase did not reverse the long-term declining trend between 1998 and 2008, according to Florida wildlife officials.

Generally, female turtles nest on the same beaches each season. Many scientists believe that hatchlings, when grown, return to their natal beaches to nest.

Threats to loggerhead survival include bottom trawlers that drag heavy gear across the ocean floor; longline and gillnet fisheries; legal and illegal harvest; vessel strikes; beach armoring; beach erosion; marine debris ingestion; oil pollution; light pollution; and predation by raccoons and feral hogs, among other native and exotic species.

The highest priority actions include monitoring trends on nesting beaches; maintaining the current length and quality of protected nesting beach; and acquiring and protecting additional properties on key nesting beaches; reducing vessel interactions with loggerheads; and maintaining the federal Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network.

Because loggerheads migrate into the waters of many countries, the plan recommends that the federal government work with foreign nations to eliminate commercial and subsistence harvest; and enact regulations to minimize loggerhead bycatch in their fisheries.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.

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