The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council took its final step today in an effort to protect threatened sea turtles from the bottom longline sector of the Gulf of Mexico reef fish fishery. Specifically, the Council voted to close all bottom longline fishing shoreward of 35 fathoms (approximately 210 feet) from June to August, a time when large numbers of loggerheads were caught in previous years, and to restrict longline fishing of all vessels that have a history of catching at least 40,000 lbs of reef fish each year. The Council also established a per vessel limit of 1,000 hooks on board during any fishing trip and 750 hooks rigged for fishing at any time.
“Today’s decision is a victory for threatened loggerheads,” said Dave Allison, senior campaign director at Oceana. “Today’s vote is a signal from the Council that it’s possible to craft fisheries management plans to protect threatened and endangered sea turtles while maintaining viable commercial fisheries. While Oceana will continue to support additional protections for loggerheads, today’s action constitutes a truly significant effort by the Council.”
The Council’s decision will now be sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for an assessment of whether the fishery operating under the new management system would jeopardize the continued existence of loggerheads. NMFS also can supplement the plan with additional turtle protections, should it see fit.
“The ball is now in NMFS’ court,” said Allison. “NMFS must act to ensure the future of loggerheads is not jeopardized.”
Also this week, NMFS issued a new status review of loggerhead sea turtles worldwide. The analysis was conducted by the loggerhead biological review team, which is made up of 13 top U.S. sea turtle experts. The review directly identifies nine discrete population segments and assesses their statuses. Both Northwest Atlantic and North Pacific loggerheads were labeled as “currently at risk of extinction.” Based on this information, Oceana is calling on NMFS to immediately uplist both populations to “endangered” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). To read the full report, please visit www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/statusreviews.htm.
“It’s no longer just environmentalists sounding the alarm about the disparaging state of loggerheads,” said Elizabeth Griffin, marine wildlife scientist at Oceana. “Additional protections for U.S. sea turtles are clearly warranted.”
This assessment falls on the heels of preliminary data from the state of Florida showing 2009 to be one of the worst sea turtle nesting years on record. It also shows that nesting numbers from 2008, slightly higher than dismal 2007 levels, were merely part of the natural flux in nesting females rather than the beginning of a population rebound.
“I hope we’re not too late,” said Griffin. “If 2009 is any sign of the loggerheads’ future, we must act now to remove all threats.”
According to recent Government data, nearly 390 sea turtles are caught by bottom longlines in this fishery each year. This is approximately ten times the federally authorized capture level for the entire fishery.
The vast majority of the sea turtles caught by the bottom longline sector of this fishery are loggerheads, a species listed as threatened with extinction under the ESA.
According to NMFS, the west Florida shelf – the area where the bottom longlines are catching loggerheads – is an important loggerhead sea turtle foraging habitat.
About the Bottom Longline Sector of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Fishery:
The bottom longline sector operates by putting out miles of fishing line with baited hooks that sink to the ocean floor, where they intend to catch a variety of species including grouper and tilefish. In their effort to catch reef fish, the fishery unintentionally captures, injures and drowns sea turtles.
About the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council:
The Gulf Council is one of eight regional Fishery Management Councils established by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976. The Council prepares fishery management plans designed to manage fishery resources from where state waters end, out to the 200-mile limit of the Gulf of Mexico. These waters are also known as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).