Thursday, 5 April 2018

Fight begins over fate of leatherback sea turtle – via Herp Digest

Sun Sentineal 3/23/18 
A newly hatched leatherback turtle in Hollywood crawls toward the ocean at night. (Michael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel)

Leatherback turtles are nature’s U-boats, 1,500-pound reptiles that can dive to depths of more than half a mile, snatch a jellyfish and stay submerged for more than an hour before resurfacing.

Protected as endangered species for nearly half a century, their Atlantic population soon may lose that status, in what is becoming a fight between commercial fishermen and conservationists.

The Blue Water Fishermen’s Association, which represents longline fishermen who catch swordfish, tuna and other big fish along the east coast, has petitioned the federal government to reclassify from endangered to threatened the northwest Atlantic population of leatherbacks, which crawl up on Florida beaches every spring and summer to lay eggs.

With the Pacific leatherback population crashing, they say the northwest Atlantic population should be classified separately so U.S. fishermen aren’t penalized for the failure of other countries to protect them.

“Right now the leatherback population of the Earth is considered to be one stock of turtles,” said Jack Devnew, president of the Blue Water Fishermen’s Association. “Things happen in a different part of the ocean, and our fishermen pay the price.”

A crowd gathers to watch on Pompano Beach as a leatherback turtle crawls back to the ocean after making an unsuccessful attempt to lay eggs on the beach. It is very rare for a turtle to lay eggs during the day. (Mike Stocker/Sun-Sentinel)

European, Canadian and Pacific fishing fleets operate with fewer of the restrictions imposed by the U.S. government to prevent the accidental catch of sea turtles, he said. U.S. longline boats, for example, must use circle hooks, sharply curved hooks that are harder to swallow and have reduced their swordfish catch by 30 percent, he said.

Although leatherback populations in the Atlantic are generally increasing, with some fluctuations here and there, their outlook in the Pacific is far grimmer, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. In the western Pacific, they have declined more than 80 percent over the past three generations, and in the eastern Pacific, they have declined more than 97 percent. In Malaysia, Indonesia, Mexico and other Pacific rim countries, people routinely dig up leatherback nests to eat their eggs.

Opponents of the change say the leatherback’s Atlantic future only appears bright in comparison with the Pacific catastrophe. Despite the federal government’s claim that numbers have increased, they say, the most recent nest counts for many beaches have shown a decrease. And there have been worrisome indications of the effects of climate change, since temperature plays a major role in determining the ratio of male to female hatchlings, with warmer temperatures skewing the yield heavily toward females.

“We are witnessing a serious decline or near collapse of nesting on some beaches we monitor,” said Gary Appelson, policy coordinator for the Sea Turtle Conservancy. “These iconic and amazing marine reptiles need all the protections we can give them.”
Every year, these holdovers from the dinosaur age crawl ashore on South Florida beaches to lay eggs, continuing an ancient reproductive ritual despite the complications created by hotels, sea walls and bright lights. Although their flesh is too greasy for them to have suffered the fate of green sea turtles, once a table favorite in the United States, leatherbacks get caught accidentally on longlines and in shrimp nets, die from consuming plastic bags and other trash and suffer from the degradation of nesting beaches to coastal development.

Broward County “strongly opposes” stripping leatherbacks of the “endangered” label, wrote Jennifer Jurado, director of the county’s Environmental Planning and Community Resilience Division, in a letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

A leatherback nest in Boca Raton (Robert Mayer/Sun-Sentinel)

Leatherbacks established 12 nests last season on Broward beaches, the lowest number since 2011, paralleling a statewide nesting decline, she wrote.
“If there is in fact a long-term declining trend in leatherback nesting in Florida and Broward County, it is vital to retain their status as ‘endangered’ to allow nesting populations to rebound again,” she wrote.

In northern Palm Beach County, leatherback nests increased through 2009, when 277 were counted, according to a letter from the Loggerhead Marine Life Center, which monitors those beaches. But since then, the number has fallen sharply, with only 64 nests established last season, the center said.
“This abrupt reversal is a concerning trend that may indicate the Florida leatherback population is not doing as well as once thought,” the center said.
But another commercial fishing group supports the change.

“We are faced with regulations without proper assessments to species,” wrote Acy Cooper, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association. “And we are also facing unjust allegations from environmental groups that are slandering our industry. Our fishermen respect the Endangered Species Act. We have a legal right to know if all of these species are still endangered. We stand by New Jersey-based Blue Water Fishermen's Association in their request. We are saving the turtles now save our Fishermen!”

The National Marine Fisheries Service has made an initial finding that the fishing group’s petition had provided substantial scientific information that the proposal “may be warranted.” The agency will make a preliminary decision toward the end of the year.

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