A new protective rule will be temporarily enforced beginning May 18 in the Gulf of Mexico to protect the Loggerhead sea turtles. It widens the current protected area and requires the commercial reef fish longline fleet to fish seaward of a line approximating the 50-fathom contour, opposed to the current 20 fathoms. This rule will be in effect for a minimum of 180 days and a maximum of 366 days.
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Loggerhead turtles are the most common sea turtle to nest in the United States, with the largest concentration of nests in south Florida. Statistics collected in Florida since 1998 however indicate the lowest nesting levels Florida has seen in 17 years, where nesting rates have declined almost 50 percent over the last 10 years.
They were once intensively hunted for their meat and eggs, along with their fat which was used in cosmetics and medication. The Loggerhead sea turtles were also killed for their shells, which are used to make items such as combs. As a result, both subspecies (Caretta caretta gigas, found in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and C. caretta caretta, the Atlantic loggerhead, also found in south Italy and the Greek islands of Zakynthos, Kefalonia, Crete, and the Peloponese and in Dalyan in southwestern Turkey) are now internationally protected. Most Loggerheads that reach adulthood live for longer than 30 years, and can often live as long as 198.7 years.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council now requested this emergency rule after a NOAA observer study documented the reef fish longline fleet was incidentally catching and killing too many Loggerhead sea turtles.
This emergency rule will primarily affect longline fishermen who target shallow-water grouper species, such as red grouper. Most shallow-water grouper fishing occurs within the 50-fathom contour off the west Florida shelf – an important sea turtle feeding area and where most of the incidental sea turtle bycatches occur. The emergency rule also prohibits all reef fish longline fishing east of 85 degrees 30 minutes west longitude in the Gulf of Mexico after the quotas for deep water grouper and tilefish are reached.
“We are working closely with the council and constituents to find more permanent solutions to protect sea turtles affected by this fishing gear,” said Roy Crabtree, NOAA’s Fisheries Service southeast regional administrator. “I hope we can identify options that not only provide sea turtles the protection they need, but minimize the economic affects to the fishing industry.”
Loggerhead sea turtles are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. NOAA’s Fisheries Service is implementing the emergency rule in accordance with both the Endangered Species Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which requires that conservation and management measures minimize bycatch of non-target species and minimize mortality when bycatch cannot be avoided.
During this emergency rule period the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council will be considering and proposing actions to address this issue on a long-term basis.
Copyright © 2009 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC