CCA NC 2018 Annual Briefing Paper on Marine & Estuarine Resource Issues for the Hon. Governor Roy A. Cooper III Regarding Sea Turtle Incidental Take Permit for the Statewide Gillnet Fishery (condensed)
Sea Turtle Incidental Take Permit for the Statewide Gillnet Fishery
Issue Priority: Critical
Gillnets are essentially “stretchable,” monofilament nets of different mesh sizes that are weighted at the bottom and have floats at the top. Consequently, they essentially sit horizontal in the water column, presenting a “wall” to anything that attempts to swim through them. Gillnets are highly efficient at selectively trapping—by entangling their gill fins, or “gilling”—fish by size according to the stretched size of the mesh employed in a gillnet. Unless a gillnet is “attended” (literally, having the fisherman cull his nets to remove unwanted fish as they become entangled), the gilled fish quickly drown since they are unable to move and thereby continue to pass oxygenated water across their gills
The largest commercial gillnet fishery, both in terms of pounds landed and value, is the large-mesh gillnet Southern flounder fishery. Because areas where Southern flounder are harvested are also those areas where juvenile seas turtles feed, large-mesh gillnets take at least hundreds of sea turtles annually, entrapping and drowning them unless they are manually released from the nets. Southern flounder are also taken in substantial numbers in the state pound net fishery, and projections have shown that if the large-mesh gillnet fishery was closed altogether, existing pound net sets supplemented by commercial gig fishermen would harvest approximately the same volume of fish currently being caught by the combined gillnet and pound net fisheries. While pound nets do take, and occasionally kill, protected sea turtles, the number of pound net takes is minimal compared to gillnets, and the pound net fishery is overall a much “cleaner” fishery in terms of other bycatch.
All species of sea turtles are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Because of the sea turtle issue, the NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) halted the Southern flounder fishery in all or parts of the state on numerous occasions in the 1990s where NCDMF(North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries) impermissibly allowed the take of protected species not specifically authorized under the ESA.
Rather than seek to protect sea turtles as required by law, DMF’s response was instead to seek to protect commercial fishing interests. DMF did so by applying, at great expense to the state and in a process that took years to complete, for a statewide federal permit on behalf of commercial fishermen that allows commercial gillnetters to take a specified number of sea turtles, differentiated by species and management area. Under the ESA, such a permit is termed an incidental take permit (ITP).
Compliance with the requirements of the federal ITP are accomplished via an “observer program,” whereby the DMF monitors at significant public expense a small, but hopefully representative portion of, fishing activities of commercial gillnet fishermen to ensure compliance with the ESA and the settlement agreement. From an objective standpoint, the observer program has been an abysmal failure on many levels, including cost, coverage, representativeness and efficacy.
Under the express terms of the ITP, commercial fishermen are required to report every encounter, or take, between a sea turtle and a deployed gillnet, whether or not the turtle is alive, injured or dead as a result of the encounter. DMF’s own modeling of the various fishing scenarios that occur in NC—required in order for DMF to acquire the permit—indicated the probable number of takes that would occur between deployed gillnets and sea turtles in each of the state management areas delineated in the ITP. Those modeled, or projected, takes number in the thousands annually. Under the ITP, independent observers are required to monitor at least 7% of gillnetting operations to ensure ITP compliance. Those observers have reported numerous sea turtle takes, but their observations cover at best 7%—and often less than 3%—of the fishing that actually occurs.
By contrast, commercial gillnetters who are not being observed make up about 95% of commercial gillnet fishing trips, and have reported only twenty-three sea turtle interactions in five years under the ITP—or an average of less than 5 sea turtle encounters per year. DMF’s previously referenced statistical modeling that underlies the ITP indicated that based on typical fishing effort in the gillnet fishery and protected sea turtle densities in the state commercial fishermen could be expected to interact with as many as 2,900 sea turtles annually. Based on those estimates, even assuming that the state maintains observers on a full 7% of gillnet trips, unobserved commercial gillnet fishermen could have been expected to report nearly 2,700 sea turtle encounters annually, and not the 4.6 encounters actually reported. Despite those facts, which are known both to DMF and to NMFS, gillnetting continues relatively unabated, meaning that sea turtles continue to be taken unlawfully. It is important to note additionally that under established federal law, third parties may not sue to enforce the conditions of an ITP.
CCA NC requests that the Governor (1) direct the Fisheries Director, based on self-policing as the permit holder, to suspend the statewide gillnet ITP based on the non-compliance of commercial fishermen with the terms of that permit; (2) during that suspension direct DMF to undertake an objective reexamination of the statewide gillnet ITP in light of the refusal by commercial fishermen to report sea turtle takes as required by state and federal law and the ITP, and the ongoing, unnecessary slaughter of protected sea turtles given the availability of more “turtle friendly” commercial gears to harvest Southern flounder; and (3) direct DEQ, in light of state law prohibiting the willful taking, disturbance or destruction of sea turtles to reconsider the appropriateness of having the Fisheries Director as the permit holder for a permit under federal law that allows the violation of that state law.