How many threatened loggerhead, green and marine sea turtles and the endangered Kemps Ridley turtle are off the coast of the United States? How many are off the North Carolina coast?
These questions need answers. Because for years and years only commercial fishermen — those who provide restaurants and markets with seafood — have been required to report any interaction they have with sea turtles.
But recreational fishermen have not been required to report interactions, and according to a notice of intent the N.C. Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network reported 28 strandings of endangered or threatened sea turtles between Jan. 1 and Sept. 6, 2013, directly attributable to hook and line fishing, 45% of all strandings reported in that time.
In Friday’s newspaper, News-Times staff writer Mike Shutak said the notice also said that in recent years 15% to 20% of live and dead loggerheads, a threatened species along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, were injured by being hit by recreational boaters, who are also not required to report strikes, and the National Marine Fisheries Services estimates that boat strikes are the second highest non-fisheries related cause of mortality in loggerheads.
To get an accurate stock assessment and gauge recovery of sea turtles, the N.C. Fisheries Association and the Carteret County Fisherman’s Association have given 60 days intent that for violations of the Endangered Species Act they will file suit against the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Department of Commerce, N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and N.C. Wildlife Resources.
Representing the associations are Attorney Stevenson Weeks with the Beaufort firm of Wheatly, Wheatly, Weeks, Lupton & Massie, and Wes C. Cooper, also an attorney in Beaufort.
Mr. Weeks said the associations want the NMFS to conduct a sea turtle population stock assessment throughout the United States. They’re also seeking requirements for both commercial and recreational fisheries to be observed for interactions with sea turtles and fishing gear, as well as a requirement for both types of fishermen to report such interactions.
“Mr. Weeks said that to date, there has been no stock assessment of sea turtle numbers in the United States. He said that there have been nesting studies done, but these aren’t a good indicator of turtle populations because only female turtles nest and not all females nest every year.
The commercial fishermen and many recreational fishermen think the turtles are at or near recovery,” he said.
“Commercial fishermen would love to see the turtle recover and to see restrictions eased,” said Mr. Weeks. “The fishermen are reporting more turtles every year. We want a stock assessment, but in the meantime we want a little equality. We think all user groups should do their part to help the recovery, not just the commercial fishermen.”
“We want observers to determine how large the recreational take (of sea turtles) is,” he said. “Also, there should be areas where recreational fishing should be prohibited.”
A “take” is defined in the ESA as any action that harms, harasses, captures, pursues, hunts, shoots, wounds, traps or kills a protected species.
NCFA Interim Executive Director Jerry Schill said the NCFA is considering a lawsuit for three reasons: to help the turtles recover, fairness in regulations and to create a roadmap to an “end game” for threatened and endangered turtles.
While neither the NCFA nor the CCFA want to end the protection of turtles, a stock assessment of the sea turtle population should be begun and the Endangered Species Act should be applied to recreational fishermen and recreational boaters. Equal application is, as Mr. Weeks stated, “a little equality.”