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Group says fishing hooks threaten turtles
By Cain Burdeau - Writer

Associated Press

4th July 2004

New rules on the hooks longline fishermen can use do not go far enough to protect endangered sea turtles from injury and death, an ocean watchdog group said.

After three years of research, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has ruled that longline fishermen in the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico need to use circle-shaped hooks rather than J-shaped ones.

While circle hooks are an improvement over the old ones, watchdog group Oceana is blasting the agency for not requiring the use of a bigger-sized circle hook by all American boats.

"I'm appalled at the way they've handled this situation," said Charlotte Hudson, a marine wildlife scientist with Oceana. "The size of the circle hook makes a difference: When the turtle bites down on the hook, and if there is a larger hook, then it would let go."

Hudson said the agency initially proposed using the bigger hooks in February and that it is now reversing its policy and buckling under pressure.

"Obviously they are feeling strained somewhere," Hudson said.

NOAA officials acknowledged that concerns from fishermen influenced the decision to require the smaller hooks in most areas, but said that scrapping the J hooks will do much to save sea turtles.

"It is a quantum leap forward to maintaining the viability of the fishery and maintaining the conservation of sea turtles," said Russell Dunn, a NOAA fishery management specialist.

Susan Buchanan, a NOAA spokeswoman, said Gulf of Mexico tuna fishermen complained that the bigger hooks could cost them 27 percent of their catch.

"The fishing industry felt that there would be a significant economic impact and so the agency reanalyzed its study," Buchanan said.

"We want industry support, so that is why we implemented these options," said Rick Pearson, a NOAA fishery management specialist.

There are 148 longline vessels in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico fisheries with yearly revenues of about $26 million.

The bigger hooks will be required in the Grand Banks area off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, an area closed to longlines before the three-year-study. NOAA is expected to reopen the area with the new regulations.
Longlines, which can run for miles, are used to catch mostly swordfish, tuna and shark. According to Oceana, in 2001 and 2002 about 1,500 turtles a year were snagged in such lines, which the watchdog group considers an excessive number. Turtles also try to eat the bait on longlines and swallow hooks.

"Longline fishing is a very big cause of sea turtle injuries and mortalities," Hudson said.

The six types of sea turtles in U.S. waters are on the list of endangered and threatened species.

NOAA is expected to make its rules final next week; they would take effect by the end of the summer.

Using the new smaller hooks will cut down on how much turtles get entangled with the lines, NOAA officials said.

They estimate that leatherback turtles will be half as likely to get snagged; but loggerheads will be just as likely to get caught up by circle hooks as they did with J hooks.

The smaller hooks will reduce leatherback deaths by about 79 percent and loggerhead deaths by 58 percent, NOAA officials said. About 1 percent of all turtles that are snagged on lines die, data shows.

NOAA officials also pointed out that the new rules set out standards on how to handle turtles that are snagged and make American longline fishermen follow much more stringent rules than fishermen from other countries who are to blame for more sea turtle deaths.

"It is essential that foreign fishing nations adopt these measures if we are to recover the Atlantic sea turtle populations," Dunn said.