In a move to protect sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico, federal regulators announced Wednesday they are restricting a fishing technique used to catch red grouper in waters off the Florida west coast.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the use of long fishing lines with hooks and squid bait would be banned from May 18 to Oct. 18, when sea turtles feed in the warm Florida coastal waters.
The ban comes after studies showed that as many as 1,000 sea turtles were being snagged every 18 months in longline gear. The practice involves baiting lines and laying them on the bottom of the ocean bottom. Of the 1,000 sea turtles caught, scientists estimate that about 800 were loggerheads, a threatened species.
Roy Crabtree, NOAA's southeast regional administrator for fisheries, said the ban was a temporary solution and that the agency was working with fishermen and conservationists to come up with a more permanent fix.
"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," Crabtree said.
There are about 100 boats in the Gulf that use the long-line gear to catch red grouper and most of those dock in the Tampa Bay area. About 7 million pounds of red grouper are caught a year for about $8 million in dockside revenues.
Glen Brooks, the president of the Gulf Fishermen's Association and a long-line fisherman in Cortez, Fla., said the ban threatens his industry and the hundreds of fish-house workers, truckers and deckhands that rely on it.
"This may not be something anyone can recover from," Brooks said.
Regulators are looking at cutting the fleet of long-line boats and banning the long-line gear during the prime feeding months for sea turtles between June and August.
Crabtree said studies this summer would determine what to do.
The temporary ban was praised by conservationists.
"This is going to be a major benefit to sea turtles, especially the loggerheads that are threatened with extinction," said David L. Allison, a senior campaign director at Oceana. "This is a prime feeding area for sea turtles that nest all the way up to the Carolinas."