ENDANGERED SPECIES:

Council continues gulf longline fishing ban to protect sea turtles

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council yesterday left in place a moratorium on longline fishing to aid a federally protected sea turtle species.

The National Marine Fisheries Service earlier this year imposed an emergency moratorium on longline fishing in eastern gulf waters shallower than 50 fathoms (300 feet). The council recommended the moratorium after a report indicated that the number of threatened loggerhead turtles being caught and killed by the lines was a violation of the Endangered Species Act (E&ENews PM, April 29).

The council could have voted to approve a management plan that would have ended the moratorium and opened the fishing season with increased regulations to protect turtles. Instead, council members determined that they needed more time to review newly released data before making a final decision.

The council -- a board of state and federal fisheries officials, commercial and recreational fishing groups and academics -- is expected to vote on a management plan to replace the emergency measures at its August meeting. Unless the council takes action, the moratorium is set to expire in October, but regulators have a one-time option to continue it for another six months if no permanent management plan is approved.

The decision was not a surprise, as the council wanted to be sure to take time to craft the best available plan, according to Roy Crabtree, a council member and the southeast regional administrator for National Marine Fisheries Service.

In the past decade, loggerhead sea turtle nests along Florida have declined 40 percent. Florida's Gulf Coast and the coast of Oman, on the Arabian Peninsula, are the world's largest nesting sites for the species, which NMFS listed as threatened throughout its range in 1978.

The continued moratorium adds further pain to an already disastrous season for the longline industry, which supplies much of the U.S. demand for red grouper, said Bob Spaeth, executive director of the Southern Offshore Fishing Association.

"[Fish processors] are going to lose their houses, and 2,500 jobs are going to be lost," Spaeth said. "We don't want to hurt turtles any more than anybody else does, but any kind of fishing is going to interact with turtles. Why they want to pick on this small industry is beyond us."

Spaeth added that his industry's calculations indicate that the number of loggerheads killed by longlines paled in comparison to deaths from boat propellers, automobiles near turtle nesting grounds, and habitat modification. He said his industry was committed to reducing turtle deaths but needed more time to adapt.

"Six months ago, we didn't even know we had a turtle problem," Spaeth said.

Environmental groups supported the delay, saying it would allow the council time to craft a plan that would stand up in the ocean and in court.

"The council could have made a decision today, but it would have been one that was made with very new information and with a certain degree of haste," said Elizabeth Griffin, marine scientists and fisheries campaign manager for the advocacy group Oceana. "It will give us time to ... come up with the best possible solution for the turtles and the fishermen."