Groups Sue National Marine Fisheries Service to Protect Sea Turtles

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Raviya Ismail, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext. 237

Groups Sue National Marine Fisheries Service to Protect Sea Turtles

Seek emergency action to correct violation of Endangered Species Act

TALLAHASSEE, Florida -  A group of conservation organizations is suing the National
Marine Fisheries Service to force action quickly to protect threatened
and endangered sea turtles from death and injury in the Gulf of Mexico
bottom longline fishery. Earthjustice, the Center for Biological
Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and a coalition of conservation
groups are urging the Fisheries Service to impose immediate protections
for the imperiled species.

"Important populations of sea turtles in the Gulf have been
illegally killed by the hundreds since 2006 in flagrant violation of
the Endangered Species Act," said Steve Roady, an attorney with
Earthjustice. "Now that the fishery is in full force for the season, it
has become necessary to go to court to require the new administration
to take emergency action to protect these vulnerable turtles."

The National Marine Fisheries Service, an agency of the U.S.
Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration ("NMFS" or "NOAA Fisheries") is responsible for ensuring
that bottom longline fishing does not pose a threat to sea turtle
populations. In 2005, the agency determined that the Gulf of Mexico
fishery could capture up to 114 sea turtles, including 85 loggerheads,
during a three-year period without violating the Endangered Species
Act. But the agency has released new information estimating that
vessels in the Gulf caught nearly 1,000 turtles between July 2006 and
December 2008 – more than eight times the number allowed. Although the
agency was required to issue a report on the number of turtles captured
by the bottom longline fishery every year starting in 2006, it failed
to do so. As a result, the high numbers of turtles caught in longline
equipment was not discovered at that time and hundreds more sea turtles
were captured in 2007 and 2008.

"The current emergency could have been avoided if the National
Marine Fisheries Service simply had been paying attention and making
adjustments in the fishery before the turtle takes soared to
astronomical levels in the past several years," said Andrea Treece, an
attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Now the agency's
only lawful choice is to suspend the bottom longline fishery until the
agency figures out how to prevent more turtles from being hurt or
killed."

Following on the conservation organizations' notice of its intent to
sue the agency for violations of the Endangered Species Act in January,
the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council also weighed in,
recommending the closure of the bottom longline fishery until the
National Marine Fisheries Service can ensure the protection of the
turtles. But in March, the bottom longline fishery fully re-opened for
the season – greatly increasing the immediate threat to sea turtles.

"Information indicates that the sea turtles are in trouble now.
April has been a high time for turtle takes in the past and the agency
has no basis for thinking they are not currently at risk," said Sierra
Weaver, an attorney for Defenders of Wildlife.

In addition to the high rate of capture from the bottom longline
fishery, other troubling news from Florida researchers has documented a
startling decline in loggerhead sea turtle nesting over the past decade.

"Loggerhead nesting in Florida has declined by nearly 41% in the
last decade while green and leatherback turtle nesting on the very same
beaches is increasing dramatically," said Marydele Donnelly of the
Caribbean Conservation Corporation. "This fishery is undermining nearly
three decades of conservation work to protect loggerheads from a
multitude of threats. By failing to act, the National Marine Fisheries
Service is not serving as a good steward for the nation's sea turtles." 

"We must end the indiscriminate killing of sea turtles," said Manley
Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation. "The adult and
sub-adult turtles harmed by bottom longline fishing are simply too
valuable to the overall health and survival of these populations - and
we need them to be able to reach our local beaches to nest."

"The National Marine Fisheries Service has
the responsibility to protect endangered and threatened turtle
populations from destructive fishing practices," said Cynthia Sarthou,
Executive Director of the Gulf Restoration Network. "The public needs
to know that no more sea turtles are killed just to put grouper on a
dinner plate."

Bottom longline fishing is a fishing process that uses hundreds or
even thousands of baited hooks along miles of lines laid behind fishing
vessels and stretching down to the reef and Gulf floor. The fishing
hooks target species like grouper, tilefish, and sharks, but often
catch other fish or wildlife, including endangered and threatened sea
turtles. Injuries from these hooks affect a sea turtle's ability to
feed, swim, avoid predators, and reproduce. Many times the turtles
drown or, unable to recover from the extreme physiological stress, die
soon after being released from the longlines.

Conservation groups are calling on the new administration to halt
the Gulf of Mexico bottom longline fishery until it can analyze what
measures are necessary to follow the Endangered Species Act. The
continued operation of the bottom longline fishery in the Gulf is
likely to result in the continued death and injury of sea turtles. The
loggerhead turtle faces an especially serious threat from Gulf longline
fishing due to the severe nesting decline over recent years, according
to research by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"In addition to loggerheads, the Kemp's ridley population in the
Gulf of Mexico is struggling to increase from numbers that threatened
extinction in the mid-1980s," said Carole Allen, Gulf office director
at the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. "We simply cannot risk losing
more sea turtles to longline fishing, which has shown no regard for
endangered species."  

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

A copy of the complaint
filed against the National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration, and Department of Commerce in the U.S.
District Court for the Northern District of Florida.

A copy of the letter
the groups sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service outlining the
immediate dangers to threatened and endangered sea turtles.

 

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Earthjustice is a non-profit public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth, and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment. We bring about far-reaching change by enforcing and strengthening environmental laws on behalf of hundreds of organizations, coalitions and communities.

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