Ocean watchdog groups are challenging new federal hook rules for longline fishermen who pursue tuna and other fish in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, contending the changes do not do enough to protect endangered and threatened species of sea turtles.
Oceana and the Ocean Conservancy have filed a lawsuit to overturn the new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rules, which let fishermen use hooks that environmentalists say are untested and potentially dangerous for turtles.
This past week, the groups asked a federal judge to close down two “hot spots” — one about 200 miles south of Louisiana and the other in the northeast Atlantic — until the legal dispute is settled. In these areas, turtles often cross paths with the fishermen who use baited hooks strung along lines that can run for miles, according to the lawsuit filed last month.
Longlines are usually used to catch swordfish, tuna and shark. According to Oceana, in 2001 and 2002 about 1,500 turtles a year were snagged when they swallowed the baits, often drowning before they can be recovered and released.
The new rules take effect Thursday.
The watchdog groups argue that NOAA is allowing fishermen to use smaller hooks despite its own three-year study that recommended larger hooks that turtles are less likely to try to swallow.
NOAA argues that the new small hooks, which are circular so their barbs do not protrude as much, are an improvement over the J-shaped hooks fishermen were using.
“Our research shows these steps will protect sea turtles while preserving an important, $26.5 million-per-year U.S. industry,” NOAA spokeswoman Susan Buchanan said.
The agency also says American fishermen are responsible for only about 6 percent of sea turtle injuries and deaths.
The plaintiffs accuse NOAA of changing its rules under pressure from fishermen. NOAA has acknowledged that industry concerns influenced the decision to require the smaller hooks, which are believed would lose fewer fish than the bigger hooks.
“We cannot allow the fisheries service to repeat its mistakes in the Pacific, where it ignored the decline of leatherback and loggerhead populations until they were on the brink of extinction,” said Marydele Donnelly, sea turtle scientist for the Ocean Conservancy.
Longline fishing has been severely restricted in the Pacific because of sea turtle declines.
There are about 150 longline vessels in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico fisheries with yearly revenues of about $26 million.