The Beasley Center, which rehabilitates injured sea turtles and keeps monthly records of snared North Carolina turtles, contends gill nets have been harming these endangered and threatened animals for years in violation of Section 10 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Several North Carolina fishermen's organizations, including the Coastal Fisheries Reform Group, support the center's lawsuit, noting gill nets, in addition to killing and maiming sea turtles, also ensnare sea birds and unintentionally kill thousands of sportfish species.
On Oct. 19, the Beasley Center filed a notice of intent to sue within 60 days to several federal agencies, including the Departments of Commerce and Interior, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration along with the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission and North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries.
That meant the suit could not be filed before a 60-day waiting period, not that the suit would be filed exactly 60 days after Oct. 19 (which would have been Dec. 20).
Jean Beasley, current director of the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue Center and mother of the late organization founder Karen Beasley, said she expects the suit will be filed during January with the help of the Duke Environmental Law & Policy Clinic, headed by Michelle Nowlin. The Duke group is handling the legal paperwork as a pro bono student project.
DMF director Dr. Louis Daniel, while saying he couldn't comment on the exact response of his agency, nonetheless noted a rebuttal is being prepared.
"We have been in contact and are working closely with National Marine Fisheries Service and will have something probably to release to the public in the next few weeks," Daniel said during a Dec. 28 interview. "But it takes time to put together documenation that everything (DMF/MFC) is doing that meets the letter of the (ESA)."
Daniel said he will send a letter to NMFS southeast regional Director Roy Crabtree telling him what DMF/MFC needs to do to answer the suit's charges.
"We hope to sit down with everyone, and I'm hoping what we propose will be a legitimate and defensible stand," Daniel said. "I just can't say at this time what (the response) will be."
It's likely DMF/MFC will claim they have followed ESA law when it comes to allowing incidental netting of sea turtles.
Daniel noted that a potential glitch in the ESA allows states to have incidental interactions with sea turtles in order to sustain traditional fisheries, such as netting of flounder, yet Section 9 of the ESA also declares no one can have any interactions that "harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct" when it affects endangered or threatened species.
"But there's a thing called an Incidental Capture Permit (ICP), and it was created by NMFS," Daniel said.
Basically an ICP allows "interactions" with a quota of protected animals during a certain period of time (usually a month or year) because the population of those creatures is large enough to withstand some losses without harm to the total population.
"The (U.S.) Army has an ICP at Camp Lejeune involving (protected) red-cockaded woodpeckers," Daniel said. "NMFS also allows 350,000 total interactions with sea turtles by South Atlantic (states) fish trawlers."
DMF obtained an ICP in 2009 for 120 green sea turtles inside Pamlico Sound and closed the flounder fishery when that number was reached a few days after the lawsuit was announced.
Daniel believes his agency is following ESA mandates.
"The $64,000 question is the (ESA) says 'no interaction,' but then NMFS came up with the ICP (which allows interactions)," Daniel said. "So where do you draw the line?"
However, the Beasley Center lawsuit also notes DMF/MFC is responsible for net interactions with sea turtles in all North Carolina waters and has allowed gill nets to injure and kill sea turtles outside the Pamlico Sound ICP area - which the lawsuit claims proves negligence.
As part of the ICP, state netters also are supposed to report interactions with sea turtles, and DMF is responsible for enforcing that rule. Yet no anglers reported any snared sea turtles from 2005 through 2008, even though independent observers did report such encounters, which leads to another negligence charge.
Sources indicate the Beasley Center will not accept tweaking of current netting rules by DMF/MFC but will insist on the eradication of gill nets in all North Carolina coastal waters.
"Gill nets don't just affect turtles but waterfowl and other (endangered) creatures such as Atlantic sturgeon and diamondback turtles," Beasley said. "Gill nets cause decimation of North Carolina's wildlife resources."