The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is seeking payment of more than $16,000 from Oceana in order to disclose documents of grave public concern about threatened sea turtles in U.S. waters. In late-March, Oceana submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to NOAA asking for the records relating to research and proposals about trawl gear modifications intended to prevent the incidental capture of sea turtles in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Trawling is a destructive fishing technique often compared to bulldozing the seafloor. The government has still not acted to modify trawl gear to protect sea turtles on much of the East Coast and Oceana wants the public to know why.
As a non-profit conservation organization, Oceana is entitled to a FOIA fee waiver because it does not use the information for commercial purposes, but rather to inform the public about how our government is failing to use its authority to adequately ensure the safety of sea turtles supposedly protected under the Endangered Species Act. Oceana regularly gathers, analyzes and distributes information to broad audiences, including the media and its more than 500,000 members and supporters.
“It is unconscionable for the government to withhold information about actions needed to save sea turtles,” said David Allison, senior campaign director at Oceana. “We need an explanation of why more is not being done, and done more quickly, as all six species of sea turtles swimming in U.S. waters are threatened with extinction.”
NOAA denied Oceana’s request for a fee waiver in June, citing a number of pretexts that appeared baseless on their face and had no demonstrable support in law. NOAA’s demand was even more inexplicable given the fact that Oceana has routinely been granted fee waivers when requesting information under FOIA in the past.
“Having charged us once to create this information through our tax bills, NOAA now wants to charge us thousands of dollars to disclose the information, even though Congress and the President have both told NOAA to make information freely available,” said Eric Bilsky, assistant general counsel at Oceana.
Sea turtles have been swimming the world’s oceans for more than 100 million years and play critical roles in maintaining healthy oceans. All six sea turtle species found in U.S. waters were listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act more than 30 years ago. Yet as of today, not a single species has recovered and for some, such as the loggerhead, nesting populations continue to decline.
For more information about Oceana’s campaign to save sea turtles, please visit www.oceana.org/seaturtles.