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Saving the turtles

Carl Safina on a Trinidad beach with a Caribbean leatherback sea turtle. Safina is president of Blue Ocean Institute and the author of Voyage of the Turtle.

Photo by Scott Eckert

Carl Safina on a Trinidad beach with a Caribbean leatherback sea turtle. Safina is president of Blue Ocean Institute and the author of Voyage of the Turtle.

Sea turtles will soon start crawling ashore to nest on Florida's shores in a ritual that's millions of years old. But unless we make changes, fewer turtles will reach the beaches.

Serious trouble is brewing offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Sea turtles are getting snagged on commercial fishing lines that stretch for miles. Turtles grab the bait, get caught and then drown before fishermen retrieve the lines. Statewide, the number of loggerhead sea turtle nests plummeted by 40 percent in the past decade.

The evidence that we need quick action is compelling: In 2005, the federal Fisheries Service ruled that up to 113 "hard-shell" sea turtles (several species except leatherbacks) could be caught by longline fishing boats during a three-year period without jeopardizing the turtles' survival. But the Fisheries Service found later that far more turtles were snagged than that: Nearly 1,000 turtles were caught by longlines between July 2006 and December 2008, and many of them drowned. That's eight times the limit.

This slaughter could have been avoided if officials monitored the fishery better, and released fisheries data quickly so that swift measures could be taken.

Faced with this evidence, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration must halt the bottom longline fishery immediately to comply with the law and protect sea turtles.

Florida's loggerhead population is crucial to the species' worldwide survival. To find loggerheads at the densities found in Florida, you'd have to go to the Arabian Peninsula and to Masirah Island in Oman. Florida and Masirah account for 70 to 90 percent of the world's loggerhead nesting, but Masirah's turtles also face threats from fishing, beach lighting, egg collecting, beach driving and so on. In Florida just a few years ago, you could almost trip over loggerheads — they build nearly 50,000 nests here in a good year. In 2007, the number of nests declined below 30,000.

The Obama administration should seize this chance to monitor fisheries data closely, provide adequate field observers, and protect this threatened species before it is too late. Let's all help the sea turtles make it back to Florida's beaches this year.

Scientist and writer Carl Safina is president of Blue Ocean Institute and author of Voyage of the Turtle. He is the winner of the Lannan Literary Award for nonfiction, the John Burroughs Medal for literature, and a MacArthur Prize.

Saving the turtles 04/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 18, 2009 4:30am]
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