FISHERIES:

Regulators curb Gulf of Mexico longlines to protect sea turtles

Federal regulators voted last night to impose tough new restrictions on the commercial longline fishing fleet in the Gulf of Mexico in an attempt to protect marine turtles.

The new fishery-management plan would close certain areas, restrict fishing to boats that have brought in large catches in the past and reduce the number of hooks that can be used during fishing trips.

Commercial fishing representatives said the changes would cut the longline fleet in half.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council's approval of the closure last night in Alabama sends the plan to the National Marine Fisheries Service for a final OK.

Longliner fleets string miles of line with thousands of hooks. They catch about two-thirds of the commercial grouper served in restaurants and sold at seafood counters. The practice has come under fire in the past year since a federal report found it kills more protected loggerhead turtles than previously thought. The report estimated that longliners snared nearly 1,000 turtles between July 2006 and December 2008 -- well above the permitted rate of 114 per three years.

The council temporarily shut down the longline fishery earlier this summer, and environmental groups sued the federal government in an effort to force more stringent protections for turtles. A new federal report this week found that U.S. loggerhead populations are at risk of extinction.

Environmentalists called the new fishing restrictions a "victory" for the loggerhead.

"[The] 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," Dave Allison, senior campaign director at Oceana, said in a statement. "While Oceana will continue to support additional protections for loggerheads, today's action constitutes a truly significant effort by the council."

The new rules restrict the longline fleet to only those boats that have been the most successful in the past, those that have brought in at least 40,000 pounds of grouper a year. Each vessel can put no more than 750 hooks in the water at a time, about half what many boats typically used. And fishers will have to avoid certain shallower areas in the summer, when turtles have been known to forage there.

The rules are designed to be permanent but will take about six months to implement. The National Marine Fisheries Service must issue a biological opinion to ensure that the restrictions are sufficient to protect the turtles from jeopardy under the Endangered Species Act.

Representatives from the longline industry say the new regulations are too restrictive but said their chief concern was to avoid a "jeopardy" situation for turtles that could completely shut down the fleet.

"I think that the council had a lot to struggle with there, and I think they overreacted to the situation," said Bob Spaeth, head of the Southern Offshore Fishing Association. "Some of the regulations they made are going to be very encumbering to the industry, and I think it's going to be difficult -- we're going to have fallout. ... But even though we are very unhappy with what happened, I think they did that to try to keep us out of jeopardy."

Spaeth said he will lose three of his six boats. He estimates that overall, 1,000 to 1,500 jobs could be lost.

Faced with a shutdown, some longline fishing operations 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. Spaeth equates it to "turning in your tractor to use a hoe" and says it reduces a boat's profits by two-thirds.

The Environmental Defense Fund and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation have started a matching-grants program to help longline fishers make a transition to new gear. The grants pay for half the costs of the conversion. The groups have received 55 grant applications already, and the new gear is being installed on more than 30 vessels, according to the environmental groups.

Spaeth said fishers and environmentalists plan to ask Congress for further assistance. They want funding to help fishers and other businesses that have been hit by the new restrictions.