After a request from the Mexico Fishery Management Council, NOAA’s* Fisheries Service announced an emergency rule to protect the threatened sea turtles living in the Gulf of Mexico.

The emergency rule, which was announced on April 30, will take effect on May 18. From May 18 and onwards, the commercial reef fish longline fleet active in these waters will only be allowed to fish seaward of a line approximating the 50-fathom contour in the Gulf of Mexico. (Current regulations allow the fleet to fish as close as the 20-fathoms line.)

Caretta caretta01 Mexico requests Emergency Rule to Protect Sea Turtles

The emergency rule will also outlaw all reef fish longline fishing east of 85 degrees 30 minutes west longitude in the Gulf of Mexico after the quotas for deep water grouper and tilefish are reached.

The Mexico Fishery Management Council requested the emergency rule after a NOAA observer study documented how the reef fish longline fleet was incidentally catching and killing a substantial amount of loggerhead sea turtles, a species listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

The emergency rule will be in effect for 180 days, but can be extended for up to an additional 186 days if necessary. The new rule will primarily affect those who fish for shallow-water grouper species, such as the popular food fish red grouper, since this type of fishing typically takes place in shallow waters within the 50-fathom contour off the west Florida shelf. Fishermen and groupers are however not the only ones occupying this area – it is also a very important feeding ground for sea turtles and therefore the place where most of the incidental sea turtle by-catches take place.

We are working closely with the council and constituents to find more permanent solutions to protect sea turtles affected by this fishing gear,” said Roy Crabtree, NOAA’s Fisheries Service southeast regional administrator. “I hope we can identify options that not only provide sea turtles the protection they need, but minimize the economic affects to the fishing industry.”

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is also considering actions to address the problem on a long-term basis.

The emergency rule is implemented in accordance with both the Endangered Species Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The Magnuson-Stevens Act requires that conservation and management measures minimize bycatch of non-target species and minimize mortality when bycatch cannot be avoided.

* National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)