An emergency rule to protect loggerhead sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico took effect on May 18 and will be upheld for at least 180 days. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) passed the temporary rule after federal observers reported that the bottom longline fishing fleets that hunt reef fish were incidentally killing scores of loggerhead sea turtles, a species listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
Prior regulations required that commercial reef fish longline fleets operate seaward of a boundary representing the 180-foot-deep contour line in the Gulf of Mexico, but the new rule limits fishermen to waters more than 300 feet deep, since shallower waters are important sea turtle feeding areas, where most of the incidental bycatch occurs. The rule also prohibits the use of longlines altogether in the eastern Gulf, once the quotas for deepwater grouper and tilefish are met.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council discussed possible long-term actions to minimize sea turtle bycatch at their meeting in June; however, they decided to delay making any decisions before August while their scientists review the sea turtle studies. Any decision reached by the Council will still have to be approved by NMFS before taking effect.