Loggerhead turtles, long the most abundant U.S. marine turtle, are at risk of vanishing off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, according to a new federal report.
The report comes as federal fisheries managers weigh a plan for the Gulf of Mexico aimed at reducing the number of sea turtles that die from accidental captures in fishing gear.
The federal government placed a temporary moratorium on longline fishing in the gulf last April in an attempt to aid the turtle. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council -- comprising state and federal officials, commercial and recreational fishers and academics -- is expected to vote today on a new plan that could allow the return of some longline fishers, but with more stringent restrictions on when and where they can work.
The government is facing mounting pressure to ramp up its conservation efforts for sea turtles. Three environmental groups filed a lawsuit in May in an effort to force federal agencies to upgrade the protective status for loggerheads from threatened to endangered.
The issuance of a new federal status report on loggerheads comes partly in response to that lawsuit. In a review of each of the nine populations of loggerheads across the globe, the National Marine Fisheries Service found all but two at risk of extinction, including the two in U.S. waters in the North Pacific and Northwest Atlantic.
The report says longline fisheries are the source of "substantial mortality" among juvenile and adult turtles in the ocean. It also lists marine debris, entanglement and ship strikes as increasing sources of turtle mortality. While longlines are singled out, the report says turtles are also killed by other fishing practices, including trawlers, dredgers and traps.
Loggerheads were once considered the healthiest of marine turtles in U.S. waters, but government studies have shown declines in many nesting populations over the last decade. Florida beaches, thought to host the second-largest loggerhead nesting population in the world, have seen a more than 40 percent decline in nesting in that period.
The decline in nesting populations has been linked to a number of factors, including commercial fishing, shoreline development, lost habitat and global warming.
Environmental groups and fisheries managers have been focusing mostly on threats from commercial fishing, particularly longline fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.
A federal report last year estimated that longline fishers snared nearly 1,000 sea turtles between July 2006 and December 2008 -- well above the permitted rate of 114 per three years.
The accidental capture of adult turtles is of particular concern, because the death of one female adult turtle could also effectively cut dozens of turtles from the next generation, said Elizabeth Griffin, the fisheries campaign manager for the advocacy group Oceana.
"If a couple of hatchlings die, it is OK, because only one in hundreds or one in thousands of turtle hatchlings are expected to survive, anyway," Griffin said. "But if they are catching an adult female loggerhead, that can have a huge impact to the population."
Debate over longlines
Longline fishing is a particular target for environmentalists and regulators.
Longline vessels use a single strand hung with hundreds or thousands of lines of baited hooks to attract grouper, snapper and other commercial stocks. The practice is controversial because the hooks can accidentally kill turtles and other marine life and keep them submerged as they die underwater.
The emergency rule that federal fisheries managers released last spring primarily affected longline fishing operations that target shallow-water grouper species. Most of the grouper fishing occurs off Florida in water less than 50 fathoms deep. The area also is an important turtle feeding area where most of the incidental bycatch occurs, NMFS said.
Commercial fishing groups have opposed the closure, which they say is devastating their industry and scuttling thousands of jobs in Florida.
The Southern Offshore Fishing Association maintains that reef-fish longlining is responsible for 0.05 percent of the loggerhead turtles killed by all fisheries combined. The group blames propellers from recreational boats for doing more harm to turtles.
Faced with a shutdown, some longline fishers have started to use vertical lines in the water. Vertical lines function more like traditional fishing lines, but with many more hooks. But the technique makes it harder for boats to bring in big catches.
Fishing groups and environmentalists met last night in an attempt to hammer out a compromise that could keep fishing operations in business and protect turtles. Most of the proposals under consideration would have some reduction of the fishing fleet, gear modifications and time and area closures, said Griffin, who attended the meeting.
The fisheries council is taking public comment today and is expected to vote on a gulf plan this afternoon. Unless the council acts, the longline moratorium is set to expire in October. Regulators have a one-time option to continue it for another six months if no permanent management plan is approved.