Bay St. Louis, MS. - The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council voted Thursday (10-7) to take immediate action to protect sea turtles from the bottom longline sector of the Gulf of Mexico reef fish fishery. Specifically, the council initiated an emergency rule prohibiting longline gear in waters shallower than 50 fathoms for a six month period, effective as soon as possible. The six month emergency closure would help to protect sea turtles while the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) develops a long-term solution.
"This decision reflects exceptionally fast action by the Council and NMFS to initiate a solution for the unsustainable catch and death of threatened sea turtles by the longline fishery," said Dave Allison, senior campaign director at Oceana.
According to recent government data, nearly 1,000 sea turtles were caught by bottom longlines in this fishery in just 18 months. This is approximately eight times the federally authorized capture level for the entire fishery.
"Today's decision will not only help to save a population, but to protect ocean habitat and the integrity of Gulf and Atlantic ecosystems," said Allison. "If fishing was allowed to continue while a long-term solution is developed, hundreds more of this threatened species could be killed."
It is estimated that at least 799 of the nearly 1,000 sea turtles caught by the bottom longline sector of this fishery were loggerheads, a species listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). In fact, this is more than nine times the government authorized capture level for this sector of the fishery under the ESA.
According to NMFS, the high capture level of loggerhead sea turtles, coupled with a more than 40 percent decline in Florida nesting during the last decade, could threaten the survival of this population.
"Not only are the take levels egregious, but the estimated mortality of the turtles interacting with this fishery could be 50 percent or higher," said Elizabeth Griffin, marine wildlife scientist at Oceana. "We are happy that the Council realized the urgency of the situation and took emergency action to remedy the problem."
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 snapper and grouper. In their effort to catch reef fish, the fishery unintentionally captures, injures and drowns sea turtles.
About the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council: