- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2006

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) allows commercial fishermen to kill almost 10,000 sea turtles annually and injure 334,000 more, according to a report released last week by Oceana, an environmental activism organization.

The report marked the first tabulation of all government-authorized sea-turtle casualties from commercial fishing. Elizabeth Griffin, an Oceana marine wildlife scientist and the report’s author, said the NMFS allows a certain number of casualties even though there is no estimate on how many endangered sea turtles remain in the wild.

“One of our biggest concerns is that they’re authorizing this very large number without knowing how many are out there,” Ms. Griffin said.

Sea turtles can get caught on fishing hooks or crushed by dredges, she said. Modern fishing practices kill large numbers of loggerhead turtles in the Gulf of Mexico as well as leatherbacks in the Pacific Ocean.

Ms. Griffin said leatherbacks have been on Earth since the dinosaur age, but scientists think the species could become extinct in five to 30 years.

The government has no restriction on sea-turtle casualties in most fisheries. Even where limits do exist, the NMFS does not enforce them, the report said.

NMFS fishery biologist Tanya Dobrzynski said the agency is taking action. She said the government works to implement devices that reduce turtle casualties, such as a gadget that allows the endangered creatures to escape from fishing nets. The NMFS has halted fishing operations in Hawaii and other regions where needed, she said.

Ms. Griffin called on the NMFS to use survey methods to tabulate sea-turtle populations. She also recommends that the agency order alternative methods or a halt to fishing when turtle casualties reach a critical number.

She warned that the species’ extinction would affect the whole ocean ecosystem.

David Cottingham, chief of the division of marine mammal and sea-turtle conservation at the NMFS, said the preferred method of surveying turtles — counting the number of nesting females — cannot accurately measure their populations. He said scientists do not know how many sea turtles exist for every nesting female.

He also said population totals vary at different life stages. “The little guys are really vulnerable,” he said. “They’re 2 inches across.”

Mr. Cottingham said the NMFS usually enforces limits on casualties by implementing fishing technology to protect turtles.

Species of sea turtles were listed as threatened or endangered in the 1970s, when declining numbers of nesting females indicated shrinking populations.

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