Federal fishing regulators decided Tuesday they need new rules to protect loggerhead turtles that are dying on commercial grouper lines.
The decision means fresh grouper caught locally and sold in restaurants could grow more scarce next year because the boats in question provide most of the catch.
The loggerhead-grouper problem surfaced this month in a report from federal scientists who accompanied commercial longline boats out to sea in 2006 and 2007.
Longliners lay miles of monofilament or steel line along the gulf's bottom, with hundreds of baited hooks that can soak for hours - longer than a turtle can hold its breath.
About every 30th line caught a loggerhead, and many died, the scientists noted. That translates to about 600 turtle deaths a year for the entire longline fleet, which is seven or eight times higher than previously thought.
Loggerheads are an endangered species, so federal law requires that the killing stop soon.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, meeting this week in Mobile, Ala., usually makes fishing rules by balancing the health of stocks against commercial and recreational fishing interests.
Its Reef Fish Committee voted Tuesday to study alternative longline restrictions to figure how best to protect the turtles. The full 17-member council is expected to concur later this week, observers said.
Ordinarily, fishing regulations can take years to hash out. But the Endangered Species Act puts regulators on a fast track. By spring, the Fisheries Services must issue a "biological opinion" as to whether current fishing practices jeopardize loggerheads.
Given the surprising estimate of deaths related to longlining and an apparent decline in loggerhead nests on Florida's beaches, that opinion is unlikely to favor fisherman unless something changes in the interim.
If loggerheads are still deemed in jeopardy by spring, grouper longlining could be shut down, said David Barnhart, an assistant administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"We have no information on whether they are getting hooked on the bottom or on the (line's) way down," Barnhart said. "We do know that loggerheads forage on the bottom, spending most of their time looking for food."
Possible solutions discussed Tuesday include:
-Keeping longliners out of areas where loggerheads seem to be feeding the most. Unfortunately, that includes many of the gulf's prime grouper areas.
-Limiting the length of longlines to 2 or 3 miles, short enough for retrieval within an hour or so. Some evidence indicates loggerheads can usually hold their breath that long.
-Cones that would cover baited hooks on the way down, because turtles sometimes intercept the bait before it reaches bottom.
The National Marine Fisheries Service staff will evaluate the practical impact of these and other ideas so the council can vote on new rules as early as its next meeting in January.
"There's a real sense of urgency that they have to do something," said environmentalist Tom Wheatley of the Marine Fish Conservation Network. "The Endangered Species Act really works. It's got a lot of teeth to it."