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Loggerhead sea turtle
Orlando Sentinel, January 31, 2009

New fishing rule is aimed at saving sea turtles
By Cain Burdeau, The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS - In a blow to Florida fishermen, regulators voted this week to take steps to shut down a common type of fishing that uses long lines affixed with hooks and squid bait because it may be killing hundreds of threatened sea turtles yearly.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council voted 10-7 during a meeting Thursday in Bay St. Louis, Miss., to close fishing with long-line gear in shallow waters off the coast of Florida for six months. The shutdown may start by June.

The National Marine Fisheries Service must approve the shutdown, but it is likely to do so because of mounting evidence that long-line fishing is killing sea turtles such as the loggerhead, protected by the Endangered Species Act.

"We have obligations to protect them," said Roy Crabtree, the Southeast regional administrator for the fisheries service. He said his agency would act as quickly as it can to order a six-month shutdown.

About 100 boats in the Gulf would be affected by the shutdown, and most of those dock in the Tampa Bay area. Besides red grouper, fishermen also would be barred from catching gag and other reef fish with long lines. The harvests are worth more than $30 million a year, according to industry estimates.

During the shutdown, officials, fishermen and conservationists plan to draw up a long-term conservation plan, which could involve measures such as reducing the number of boats, banning squid bait and permanently ending long-line fishing.

The move comes after studies showed that as many as 1,000 sea turtles are being snagged every 18 months in long-line gear, a practice in which fishermen bait fishing lines before they lay them on the ocean bottom. Of the 1,000 sea turtles caught, scientists estimate that about 800 of them were loggerheads, a species that is listed as threatened.

Besides fishermen, Florida's seafood lovers would be affected by a shutdown.

"Grouper is almost iconic for the state of Florida," said Dave Allison, a senior campaign director at Oceana, a conservation group that supports the restrictions. "Grouper is to Florida what cod used to be to Massachusetts."

Conservationists say the fishing technique is harmful to sea turtles that forage in the same reefs red groupers use off the west coast of Florida.

But fishermen dispute that they are catching so many sea turtles on their lines.

"We think there are more turtles being killed by props in Florida than there are killed by long lines throughout the entire Gulf of Mexico," said Glen Brooks, the president of the Gulf Fishermen's Association, which represents Florida long-line fishermen.

Brooks said the 18-month study of long-line fishing in 2006 and 2007 used scientific models that do not depict reality.

"They observed 18 turtles being caught and then they extrapolated the numbers," Brooks said. "This has nothing to do with turtles in my mind. It has to do with getting rid of long-line equipment, the dominant gear in the Gulf."

He said a shutdown on long-line gear would cut production in half. About $13 million in red grouper is caught a year in the Gulf, according to fisheries-service data.

"It's not only going to cut production down by half, we'll have to switch the boats over to vertical gear and retrain the guys," Brooks said. "But it beats the alternative of tying up to the dock and sending the guys down the road to get new jobs."

Allison said a shutdown was still not enough to ensure sea turtles do not become extinct.

"What we need to do is [pass] a Sea Turtle Protection Act to give sea turtles the same kind of protection that mammals get," Allison said. "There are a lot of other issues, as the fishermen point out. There are problems with nesting beaches, with lights on the beaches, with the armoring of the coast."

Copyright © 2009, Orlando Sentinel

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton