Commercial fishing groups may file suit over turtle protection

Two North Carolina groups say recreational fishermen, boaters face no restrictions, only commercials

Jerry Dilsaver

March 17 at 12:44 pm  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

Commercial fisheries groups may sue federal and state fisheries managers over the way endangered sea turtles like this loggerhead are protected.
Commercial fisheries groups may sue federal and state fisheries managers over the way endangered sea turtles like this loggerhead are protected.

Two groups representing North Carolina commercial fishermen have fired a shot across the bow of state and federal agencies, sending a notice of intent to sue federal and state fisheries managers over protection of sea turtles under the Endangered Species Act.

The North Carolina Fisheries Association and Carteret County Fisherman’s Association, represented by attorney Stevenson Weeks, filed notice to sue on March 5. They cite ESA violations on the part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Servies and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as the N.C. Department of, Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR), N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. 

The group’s letter charges that the state and federal agencies had knowledge of significant turtle takes in the recreational hook-and-line fishery and other resource users, yet focused their conservation and regulation measures almost solely on commercial fisheries, arbitrarily and capriciously assigning the full burden of the species recovery to commercial fishermen. The letter said commercial fishermen are highly regulated, while recreational hook-and-line fisheries and recreational boaters are involved in interactions with sea turtles, yet they remain unregulated – a violation of the ESA. 

While the letter said the commercial fishing groups are simply seeking an assessment of sea turtle populations and a level at which they could be considered as “recovered” – plus equal sharing of responsibility for the recovery – they seek to hold recreational fishermen and boaters hostage to force federal and state agencies to comply.

Jerry Schell, acting executive director of the N.C. Fisheries Association, wrote in his March 8 NCFA weekly update, “I suffer from a long memory when it comes to the Endangered Species Act and the protection of sea turtles. It began with (turtle extruder devices). Shrimpers were asked to come up with a solution to protect sea turtles. And they did. It wasn’t an easy process, and it wasn’t cheap, but they did. The same is true for the pelagic long-line fishery. They came up with circle hooks after a lot of work, and that resulted in losing 25-percent of their swordfish catch. And now we add the estuarine gill-net fishery with observers, closed areas and other restrictions. During all of this, the fishermen see lots and lots of turtles in increasing numbers. On one hand that’s a good thing. But with more turtles, guess what? There’s the possibility of more interaction.

“There is no end that we can see,” Schill said. “And we’re not talking about the current protections, but what’s coming down the pike in the future? Up to this point, the burden has been put on commercial fishermen, time after time. Yet, the data shows interaction with the recreational fishery and with boating. Why are no protections being asked of those sectors?

“Fairness demands that somebody do something,” Schill said. “Our recent action is just a plea for help. We truly believe that it’s only fair that our fishermen should know what the end game is. What will it take to have a victory party when we can all claim that turtles are recovered? The Endangered Species Act should not be a fund-raising tool for radicals to use as hard-working men and women are used as pawns and risk their ability to make a living. Let’s have an accurate stock assessment on turtle populations but also address all risks to sea turtles and not just the working commercial fishermen.”

Agencies potentially involved in the suit all declined to comment, but the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina (CCA-NC) posted this response on its website on March 11:

“The Plaintiffs' (notice of intent) significantly mischaracterizes the relative threat of recreational marine resource users to the conservation and recovery of protected sea turtles as compared to the documented threat to conservation and recovery presented by commercial gear users…. Additionally, while Plaintiffs make vague, unsupported allegations in the NOI of the underreporting of sea turtle interactions by recreational fishermen, the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries' (DMF) 2013 observer data for the gill-net fishery ITP indicate that if DMF's observer program is representative of the gill-net fishery as a whole, it is statistically probable that commercial gill-netters should have reported some 600 sea turtle interactions for gill-net trips not being observed during 2013; yet in actuality they reported only one such interaction, even though the gill-net ITP strictly mandates self-reporting.

“Coastal Conservation Association North Carolina has always been, and remains, committed to the conservation and recovery of protected sea turtles in North Carolina…. CCA-NC is also committed to fairness in implementing the mandate of the ESA, including fairness to commercial fishermen. That commitment to fairness can never mean, however, that this organization accedes to the widespread use of non-selective commercial gears that by their very nature pose a continuing threat both to sea turtles and state finfish stocks.”


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