NC commercial fishermen challenge sea turtle regulations

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comMarch 19, 2014 

North Carolina commercial fishermen say they are unfairly burdened with state and federal regulations designed to protect rare sea turtles, and they want recreational anglers and boaters to start sharing the pain.

In a legal notice filed this month with fish and wildlife agencies, attorneys for the N.C. Fisheries Association also called for a new national count of threatened and endangered turtles – to determine whether they still need legal protection.

“The commercial fishermen would love to see the sea turtle recover, so some of the restrictions could be eased or lifted,” Beaufort lawyer Steve Weeks told reporters and fishermen at the Core Sound Heritage Center on Harkers Island earlier this month. “These restrictions are tough. The turtle has made a great comeback. Now, turtles are everywhere.”

The state’s nearly 5,000 commercial fishermen are required to take precautions including the use of turtle-excluder devices, which keep sea turtles from getting entangled and killed in their nets. Weeks said a sizable share of turtle deaths and injuries are caused by recreational boat propellers and fish hooks – but these anglers and boaters are not required even to report these incidents, he said.

Weeks filed a 60-day notice, as required by the federal Endangered Species Act, that the commercial group plans to sue state and federal fish and wildlife agencies to force them to establish turtle-related restrictions for anglers and boaters. He said the state has more than 400,000 licensed recreational fishermen.

“Other users of the resource are taking turtles in astounding numbers,” Weeks said. “We think all user groups should contribute their part in the recovery of the turtle.”

Bill Hooper of Beaufort, a commercial fisherman, said he backed the planned lawsuit because he hoped broader regulations would inspire recreational anglers to join the commercial fishermen’s push for an assessment of sea turtle populations.

“We have to level the playing field so the outcry gets a little louder,” Hooper said. “When the common, everyday man is prevented from doing what he’s been doing before, that outcry is going to get a lot louder.”

A spokeswoman for the state Division of Marine Fisheries said the agency could not comment on the pending lawsuit.

Bud Abbott, president of the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina, which represents saltwater anglers, said it was premature to comment on the prospect of new regulations. But he said his group was concerned about the welfare of sea turtles.

“We have encouraged the recreational fishermen to self-report if they do have a turtle incident, and a lot of them do – a lot more than the commercial fishermen do,” Abbott said.

Abbott’s group said in a news release that the commercial fishing group was exaggerating the harm done to turtles by recreational fishing. No more than 25 percent of sea-turtle “interactions” involving fishing gear, and 4 percent of deaths, involve recreational fishermen, the news release said.

The North Carolina coast is home to five kinds of endangered or threatened sea turtles. Nesting numbers and egg hatches have increased in recent years for loggerheads, the species most common here.

Biologists monitor sea turtle populations by counting nests and hatchlings on the beaches. Turtle numbers along the Atlantic Coast have increased steadily in recent years, with 1301 nests counted along the North Carolina shoreline in 2013.

This story was made possible in part by a fellowship from the nonprofit Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources ( ijnr.org).

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or newsobserver.com/roadworrierblog Twitter: @Road_Worrier

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