Recreational anglers hurt turtles, too, NC commercial fishermen say in federal lawsuit

Environmental regulators should be forced to expand their enforcement of the Endangered Species Act to cover recreational hook-and-line anglers who harm endangered sea turtles, two commercial fishing groups said Tuesday in a federal lawsuit.

“Commercial fishing is the only fishing that gets regulated,” Jerry Schill, president of the N.C. Fisheries Association, said in an interview. “You keep waiting for them to start looking at other avenues for enforcing the Endangered Species Act, and they don’t do it.”

Commercial restrictions include limits on some nets that can snag turtles, and requirements for observers to make sure that turtles are not harmed. But Schill said loggerheads and other threatened sea turtles also are snagged on anglers’ hooks and struck by their boats.

Schill’s group was joined by the Carteret County Fisherman’s Association in filing the 19-page lawsuit in U.S. Eastern District Court in Raleigh against the heads of seven state and federal agencies. Among the defendants are U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzger and John Skvarla, state Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources.

David Sneed, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina, a nonprofit that represents recreational anglers, said the group’s attorneys and board members were studying the lawsuit and were not prepared to comment on it.

“Unlawful takes” at issue

The plaintiffs cite documents produced by the regulatory agencies implicating recreational anglers in “significant numbers of unlawful takes” of legally protected turtles. “Takes” include a broad range of unlawful interactions, not always involving death or injury to the animal.

In the first eight months of 2013, the lawsuit says, 45 percent of turtle strandings in North Carolina “were directly attributable to the hook and line fishery.” Recreational fishermen hooked five Kemp’s ridley sea turtles from a Topsail Island fishing pier in May of this year, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit claims that recreational fishermen have been implicated in the taking of 27,291 sea turtles along the Gulf Coast alone.

Unintended catches are regulated through “incidental take” permits issued to commercial anglers. The lawsuit says similar permits should be employed to regulate recreational fishermen.

The commercial fishing groups also ask in their lawsuit that federal regulators make counts of the protected turtles, to determine whether their numbers are low enough to warrant continued protection.