A half dozen conservation groups sued the federal government on Wednesday, claiming the agency that oversees the Gulf of Mexico fishery is violating the Endangered Species Act by failing to protect threatened sea turtles.
The groups claim a common type of fishing from vessels in the Gulf of Mexico that use long, baited lines to catch grouper and other fish is killing hundreds of the rare turtles every year.
"We think they're required to stop the fishing," said Steve Roady, an attorney for Earthjustice, which is suing on behalf of the conservation groups.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Tallahassee on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, Florida Wildlife Federation, the Gulf Restoration Network and the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. They are suing the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The groups claim the service is ignoring its own 2005 opinion that the turtles would likely not be in jeopardy from long-line fishing if the number of turtles that were accidentally caught in the process was less than 114 over a three-year period. They have not yet determined the exact measures needed to cut down on the accidental catches.
However, the plaintiffs claim, fishing boats in the Gulf caught nearly 1,000 sea turtles between July 2006 and December 2008, in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
"The law clearly says the government cannot allow actions that jeopardize the existence of these species," Roady said.
In addition, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council voted in January to close fishing with long-line gear in shallow waters off Florida's coast for six months.
The fisheries service has so far failed to act on that recommendation. The agency said it was not immediately prepared to comment on the lawsuit. Its representatives Wednesday were at a council meeting in New Orleans discussing the long-line fishing issue.
Meanwhile, the fishing season has begun, and environmentalists fear even more threatened loggerhead turtles and other rare species will be killed this year.
The groups suing want the courts to shut down the Gulf long-line fishing season until a better management plan is in place, potentially threatening a more than $30 million-a-year industry involving about 100 boats, mostly based in Florida.
It's a prospect fishermen fear.
"If they shut us down for five or six months, it's going to kill our infrastructure, all the fish houses, all the people that supply us and buy from us," said Randy Baker, who owns three boats in Madeira Beach, Fla., just south of Tampa. "It will crush us."
Baker also claims the estimates of turtles being killed are far too high.
"Not even close," he said.