Ruling will require federal fishery managers to look at cumulative impacts before setting new rules
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — Federal officials will have to go back to the drawing board to consider new long-line fishing regulations that better protect loggerhead sea turtles from longline fishing impacts. Longline fishing catches large numbers of non-target animals, including turtles.
In a big win for environmental groups, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the law when it failed to consider a reasonable range of options to protect the turtles, and when it refused to take a fresh look at the fishery’s impact on sea turtles after last year’s massive Gulf oil spill.
“The court confirmed that NMFS’s decision … violates the law and threatens to push this already declining species closer to the brink,” said Andrea Treece, staff attorney with Earthjustice. “This fishery affects one of the world’s most important loggerhead nesting populations and some of the most critical feeding areas for these turtles. If this iconic species is ever to recover, NMFS must offer them real protection — not trap their feeding grounds with hooks and tangling lines.”
“This court ruling is an important victory because it will require NMFS to examine the cumulative impacts of the oil spill, habitat loss and other sea turtle threats before deciding whether to permit this highly destructive Gulf longline fishery to continue killing so many turtles each and every year,” said David Godfrey, executive director of Florida-based Sea Turtle Conservancy.
The Fisheries Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is responsible for protecting sea turtles under federal law. Several years ago, the agency determined that the bottom longline fishery had been capturing and killing hundreds more sea turtles than was allowed under the Endangered Species Act.
A coalition of Gulf and national conservation groups went to court in 2009 to force the agency to develop new rules based on that finding. Subsequently, the agency temporarily closed the fishery, then re-opened it after establishing several new restrictions, including limiting bottom longline fishing to an area outside of 35 fathoms shoreward, which is a significant part of the loggerhead sea turtle’s Gulf habitat.
In 2010, the agency issued new regulations that weakened protection for sea turtles just as they became even more vulnerable due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Even though it recognized the need to move hundreds of sea turtle nests away from the oil-affected Gulf beaches, the Fisheries Service failed to perform essential scientific consultation after the spill to ensure that vulnerable sea turtles received necessary protections.
In the case decided Tuesday, the conservation groups challenged the agency’s decision to reopen the bottom longline fishery despite finding that it would kill hundreds of loggerheads per year in a turtle population that has experienced a severe nesting decline over the past decade. The groups also challenged the agency’s failure to engage in the required scientific consultation after the oil spill. These actions by the Fisheries Service allowed the injury or killing of more than 700 loggerheads through 2011 and another 600 thereafter every three years — more than seven times as many as the bottom longline fishery vessels were allowed to capture or kill under previous rules set to protect viable population levels.
“Problems with loggerhead turtle by-catch plagued the Florida bottom longline fleet even before the 2010 Gulf drilling disaster made life harder for this threatened species,” said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network. “In the wake of this disaster more must be done to protect and restore our marine wildlife.”
“This is a big win for sea turtles,” said Sierra Weaver, staff attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “It takes little more than common sense to know that the government has to reconsider the impact of the fisheries on struggling sea turtle populations in the Gulf in light of the current conditions caused by the enormous Deepwater Horizon blowout.”
“It’s time for the government to step up to the plate when it comes to protecting loggerhead sea turtles and their habitat in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Miyoko Sakashita, head of the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program. “At a time when they’re already threatened by pollution and climate change, we need to protect as many turtles as possible from avoidable death and injury in fishing gear.”
In 2009, the National Marine Fisheries Service itself issued a report finding that loggerheads in the northwest Atlantic Ocean are in danger of extinction and that capture by vessels in commercial fisheries is a primary threat to loggerheads. Loggerhead nesting in Florida has declined by more than 40 percent during the past decade. In addition to loggerheads, the court’s ruling also ensures the Fisheries Service must fully consider the fishery’s potential impacts after the oil spill on other endangered sea turtle species that inhabit the Gulf, including Kemp’s ridley, green and hawksbill sea turtles.
Filed under: biodiversity, BP Gulf oil spill, endangered species, Environment, federal government, Marine biology, wildlife Tagged: | biodiversity, Deepwater horizon oil spill, Environment, Gulf of Mexico, Gulf Restoration Network, loggerhead sea turtles, national marine fisheries service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sea turtles, Summit County News