Kathryn Brooks
© Kathryn Brooks

Sea Turtles

Longline Fishing in the Gulf of Mexico

Longline fishing involves the setting of thousands of baited hooks on miles of fishing line that is dragged through the ocean. Unfortunately, many threatened and endangered sea turtles also get caught and killed in these lines.

The Problem

In 2009, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) discovered that one fishery in the Gulf of Mexico was capturing and killing almost 10 times the number of threatened and endangered sea turtles permitted by the Endangered Species Act. As a result, the agency was required to reassess the operation of the fishery and find ways for it to operate with less harm to sea turtles.

How We’re Helping

In April 2009 Defenders of Wildlife, along with a coalition of other environmental groups, sued NMFS over the sea turtle deaths. In response, the agency imposed a 6-month closure of all longline fishing activities in the Gulf while it determined whether and how the fishery could operate while ensuring the survival of the turtles over the long term.

In 2010 NMFS released a new Biological Opinion and determined that the fishery could continue to operate with limited restrictions, such as requiring it to operate in deeper waters during certain months of the year to limit sea turtle capture. Leading scientists objected, however, claiming that the measures did not go far enough. The conservation community responded by going back to court to challenge the new rules, as well as the failure of the agency to consider the impacts of the 2010 Gulf oil spill on the same turtles harmed by the fishery.

Where We Are Today

In August 2011, a federal judge agreed with us and ruled that the agency violated both the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act when it issued new regulations for the fishery. However, despite this favorable ruling, the judge has yet to rule on what NMFS must do to remedy these violations.