U.S. pushes Mexico to strengthen sea turtle protection

A loggerhead sea turtle off the coast of New England. Photo courtesy NOAA/Matthew Weeks.
Loggerhead sea turtles need more protection from gillnet and longline fishing off the coast of Baja. Photo courtesy NOAA.

Failure to protect loggerhead sea turtles could lead to seafood sanctions

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Mexico isn’t doing enough to protect sea turtles, U.S. officials said last week, issuing a formal warning that could ultimately lead to a ban on seafood imports from Mexico.

At issue are endangered North Pacific loggerhead sea turtles in the Gulf of Ulloa. Mexico earlier this year adopted new regulations aimed at protecting the sea turtles with a fishery reserve, a mortality limit and  fishing gear restrictions.

But according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries service, those regulations don’t go far enough to address the bycatch of loggerhead turtles. As a result, the U.S. for the first time ever has issued a “negative certification” for bycatch of a protected living marine resource under the High Seas Driftnet Fishing Moratorium Protection Act.By some estimates, Mexican halibut and shark fisheries off Baja California Sur have killed more than 2,000 endangered North Pacific Ocean loggerheads each year. The turtles become entangled in gillnets or hooked on longlines and drown. The same population of sea turtles migrates north to feed off California’s coast in El Niño years.

“Bycatch of these turtles threatens their continued existence and addressing this bycatch supports sustainable populations of the species,” said John Henderschedt, director of the NOAA Fisheries Office of International Affairs and Seafood Inspection. “We will continue to consult with Mexico to address this issue and encourage measures that would achieve a positive certification,” Henderschedt said.

“Unless Mexico acts now, its fishing gear may drive loggerhead sea turtles extinct,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These loggerhead sea turtles live in both the United States and Mexico, so both countries have to take strong action to save them.”

Uhleman explained that, under the Moratorium Protection Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service must “certify” any nation whose fisheries kill more protected species, like sea turtles, than would be allowed in the United States. Once the offending nation is certified, the law requires the president to ban import of its seafood products.

In the United States fishermen are required to adopt sea turtle bycatch prevention measures, including closing high-risk fishing areas. The regulations adopted by Mexico earlier this year still allow up to 90 loggerheads to be killed each year — too many by U.S. standards, which even require closure of high-risk fishing areas. Similar U.S. fisheries are allowed to kill only two North Pacific loggerheads each year.

“We welcome the U.S. decision,” said Joanna Nasar of Turtle Island Restoration Network. “Any delay in halting excess bycatch in Mexico’s fisheries spells doom for these vulnerable and long-lived sea turtles.”

In 2013 the Center and Turtle Island Restoration Network formally petitioned the Service to certify Mexico for its sea turtle bycatch. The groups said they will push the White House to quickly authorize a strong embargo on seafood products from Mexican fisheries.

Conservation scientists have said that Baja California Sur may have the highest known rates of turtle bycatch and strandings worldwide and is  considered a global bycatch hotspot. The National Marine Fisheries Service has previously recognized that the incidental capture of loggerheads represents one of the biggest threats to the species. Losing between 37 to 92 Pacific Ocean loggerhead turtles “would be expected to increase the extinction risk” of the population and would ultimately “jeopardize the continued existence of loggerhead sea turtles.”



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