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For Immediate Release, December 18, 2009

Contact:  Raviya Ismail or Steve Roady, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500 x 221 (office) or (202) 841-7619 (cell)
Andrea Treece, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 436-9682 x 306 (office)
Marydele Donnelly, Caribbean Conservation Corporation, (410) 750-1561 (office)
Cynthia Sarthou, Gulf Restoration Network, (504) 525-1528 x 202
Todd Steiner or Teri Shore, Turtle Island Restoration Network, (415) 663-8590 x 103 or 104 (office)
Sierra Weaver, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 669-7327 (cell)

National Marine Fisheries Service Sued to Save Loggerhead Sea Turtles 
Weak Science in New Government Plan Undermines Turtle Protection

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.— Conservation groups went back to court Thursday in their continuing battle to protect imperiled sea turtles from death and injury in the Gulf of Mexico bottom longline fishery. The groups are suing because the National Marine Fisheries Service’s latest assessment of the fishery’s impact on loggerhead sea turtles is based on incomplete science, so new regulatory measures will fall short of giving the species the protection it needs to survive and recover. The Fisheries Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is responsible for protecting sea turtles under federal law.

The agency recently reopened the bottom longline fishery after a six-month emergency closure designed to stop the capture and killing of sea turtles in violation of the Endangered Species Act. A previous coalition lawsuit, filed in April, had asserted that the Fisheries Service was required to close the bottom longline fishery and address the new data on sea turtle capture in a new biological opinion. The biological opinion, released accordingly in October, analyzed the agency’s plans to reopen the fishery — an action the agency expects will result in the capture of six to seven hundred loggerheads every three years – more than seven times as many animals as the bottom longline fishery was allowed to capture under the previous plan.

The new lawsuit challenges the biological opinion as unlawful and incomplete. “NMFS is continuing to violate the law,” said Steve Roady, an attorney with Earthjustice. “In the teeth of a staggering decline in the population of imperiled sea turtles, the agency has now authorized a huge increase in the number of turtles killed by this fishery. This decision is unlawful and the underlying biological opinion is fundamentally flawed, so we are going back to court.”

“The National Marine Fisheries Service has swept sound science and common sense under the rug to justify the killing of a vast number of loggerhead sea turtles,” said Andrea Treece, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The agency is charged with protecting sea turtles as well as managing fisheries, yet both sea turtles and fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico are in terrible shape. It’s time for the agency to get serious about protecting our marine resources before it’s too late.”

The agency omitted important new science from its analysis, according to the conservation groups, and failed to back up its flawed finding that the bottom longline fishery would not harm the loggerheads’ chances at survival and recovery. Its 2009 Loggerhead Review Team issued a report in August finding that loggerheads are in danger of extinction. The report also found that incidental capture by vessels in commercial fisheries is a primary threat to the loggerhead population. Loggerhead nesting in Florida has declined by more than 40 percent in the past decade. In 2009, Florida beaches saw the fourth lowest nesting numbers in recorded history.

 “We have some major concerns about the agency’s biological opinion, such as the omission of detailed information about the presence of turtles in the fishing area year-round. The agency has no basis for thinking loggerheads are not currently at substantial risk,” said Marydele Donnelly, a biologist with the Caribbean Conservation Corporation. “Moreover, 2009 was one of the worst nesting years on record for loggerheads in Florida, indicating to us that fisheries are the smoking gun in the decline of the loggerhead.” 

“We had hoped that the emergency closure earlier this year would give NMFS the chance to take a hard look at the impacts of this fishery on these truly imperiled turtles,” said Sierra Weaver, an attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “Unfortunately, the agency hasn’t followed through with the analysis and conservation-minded approach we were expecting, and that the law requires.”

“NMFS has failed to fully consider the risk that the bottom longline fishery poses to the future of threatened and endangered turtle populations,” said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network. “What they are doing fails to satisfy the agencies’ legal duty to protect these magnificent creatures.” 

“We simply cannot risk losing more sea turtles to longline fishing, which has shown no regard for endangered species,” said Carole Allen, Gulf of Mexico office director of Turtle Island Restoration Network/HEART (Help Save Endangered Animals - Ridley Turtles). “We’ve worked too hard to protect sea turtles in the Gulf from fisheries to have them pushed farther towards extinction by Florida longliners.”

Bottom longline fishing is a fishing process that uses hundreds or even thousands of baited hooks along miles of lines laid behind fishing vessels and stretching down to the reef and Gulf floor. The fishing hooks target species like grouper, tilefish, and sharks, but often catch other fish or wildlife, including endangered and threatened sea turtles. Injuries from these hooks affect a sea turtle’s ability to feed, swim, avoid predators, and reproduce. Many times the turtles drown or, unable to recover from the extreme physiological stress, die soon after being released while trying to recover from capture.

Additional Resources:

A copy of the complaint filed Thursday against the National Marine Fisheries Service, and Department of Commerce in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida is available here.

A copy of the December letter the groups sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service and Department of Commerce providing notice of additional legal problems regarding their ongoing failure to protect threatened and endangered sea turtles is available here.

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