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For Immediate Release, July 6, 2011

Contact:  Andrea Treece, Earthjustice, (510) 550- 6789
Emma Cheuse, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500 x 220                      
David Godfrey, Sea Turtle Conservancy, (352) 373-6441
Sierra Weaver, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-3274
Miyoko Sakashita, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 632-5308 
Cynthia Sarthou, Gulf Restoration Network, (504) 526-1528 x 202
Teri Shore, Turtle Island Restoration Network,  (415) 663-8590 x 103   

Court Finds Fisheries Agency Violated Law,
Must Take New Action to Protect Threatened Sea Turtles After Gulf Oil Spill

GAINESVILLE, Fla.—  Conservation groups scored a victory in court Tuesday in their effort to protect imperiled sea turtles from death and injury from the Gulf of Mexico bottom longline fishery. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the law when it failed to consider a reasonable range of options to protect loggerhead sea turtles and refused to take a fresh look at the fishery’s impact on sea turtles after last year’s massive Gulf oil spill.  

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.

After the agency determined that the bottom longline fishery had been capturing and killing hundreds more sea turtles than was allowed under the Endangered Species Act, a coalition of Gulf and national conservation groups sued in 2009 and the federal agency then temporarily closed the fishery. In 2009, the Fisheries Service reopened the fishery while instituting new measures under the Endangered Species Act, including limiting bottom longline fishing to an area outside of 35 fathoms shoreward, which is a significant part of the loggerhead sea turtle’s Gulf habitat. Then, in 2010, the agency issued new regulations that weakened this protection for sea turtles just as they became even more vulnerable due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Even though it recognized the need to move hundreds of sea turtle nests away from the oil-affected Gulf beaches, the Fisheries Service failed to perform essential scientific consultation after the spill to ensure that vulnerable sea turtles received necessary protections.

The coalition, which includes Earthjustice, the Sea Turtle Conservancy, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Gulf Restoration Network and Turtle Island Restoration Network, had previously filed suit against the Service to protect the threatened loggerhead turtle from longline fishing, a dangerous fishing practice that catches large numbers of nontarget animals on its hooks. In the case decided Tuesday, these Gulf and national conservation groups challenged the agency’s decision to reopen the bottom longline fishery despite finding that it would kill hundreds of loggerheads per year in a turtle population that has experienced a severe nesting decline over the past decade. The groups also challenged the agency’s failure to engage in the required scientific consultation after the oil spill. These actions by the Fisheries Service allowed the injury or killing of more than 700 loggerheads through 2011 and another 600 thereafter every three years — more than seven times as many as the bottom longline fishery vessels were allowed to capture or kill under previous rules.  

“The court confirmed that NMFS’s decision not to take a fresh look at the fishery’s impacts on a sea turtle population whose home has since been ravaged by the largest oil spill in U.S. history violates the law and threatens to push this already declining species closer to the brink,” said Andrea Treece, staff attorney with Earthjustice. “This fishery affects one of the world’s most important loggerhead nesting populations and some of the most critical feeding areas for these turtles. If this iconic species is ever to recover, NMFS must offer them real protection — not trap their feeding grounds with hooks and tangling lines.”

“Problems with loggerhead turtle bycatch plagued the Florida bottom longline fleet even before the 2010 Gulf drilling disaster made life harder for this threatened species,” said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network. “In the wake of this disaster more must be done to protect and restore our marine wildlife.”

“This is a big win for sea turtles,” said Sierra Weaver, staff attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “It takes little more than common sense to know that the government has to reconsider the impact of the fisheries on struggling sea turtle populations in the Gulf in light of the current conditions caused by the enormous Deepwater Horizon blowout.” 

“It’s time for the government to step up to the plate when it comes to protecting loggerhead sea turtles and their habitat in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Miyoko Sakashita, head of the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program. “At a time when they’re already threatened by pollution and climate change, we need to protect as many turtles as possible from avoidable death and injury in fishing gear.”

“Sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico, especially loggerhead turtles, face a gauntlet of threats that are rapidly reversing decades of progress in recovering these species,” said David Godfrey, executive director of Florida-based Sea Turtle Conservancy. “This court ruling is an important victory because it will require NMFS to examine the cumulative impacts of the oil spill, habitat loss and other sea turtle threats before deciding whether to permit this highly destructive Gulf longline fishery to continue killing so many turtles each and every year.”

“Sea turtles and oil don’t mix,” said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. “If we want sea turtles to survive and recover from the oil spill, we need to stop allowing hundreds to die a cruel inhumane death at the end of baited longline fishing gear.”

In 2009, the National Marine Fisheries Service itself issued a report finding that loggerheads in the northwest Atlantic Ocean are in danger of extinction and that capture by vessels in commercial fisheries is a primary threat to loggerheads. Loggerhead nesting in Florida has declined by more than 40 percent during the past decade. In addition to loggerheads, the court’s ruling also ensures the Fisheries Service must fully consider the fishery’s potential impacts after the oil spill on other endangered sea turtle species that inhabit the Gulf, including Kemp’s ridley, green and hawksbill sea turtles.


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