Turtle deaths anger fishermen
CORTEZ – Commercial fishermen who warned that a single oil spill would kill more sea turtles than the entire Gulf of Mexico longline fleet now have proof.
As of June 5, 235 dead turtles and 45 injured ones had been collected in the five states bordering the Gulf since the April 20 oil rig explosion, according to Deepwater Horizon Unified Command. Of those, 27 dead turtles were collected in Florida before the first tar ball hit Pensacola Beach on June 4.
The tally for dead birds was 547, while 30 deaths were recorded for mammals, including manatees and dolphins.
“Read it and weep,” said Glen Brooks, president of the Gulf Fishermen’s Association, and a Cortez longliner who holds four of Manatee County’s eight longline endorsements. “I think we all can expect this kill rate to continue for several more months, even after the oil spill is stopped or until we run out of turtles.”
Turtle deaths caused a temporary ban on longline gear that became permanent in May for all but 62 boats in the Gulf of Mexico fishery. The restrictions were prompted by a federal lawsuit filed under the Endangered Species Act over 18 sea turtle interactions over 18 months, five of which resulted in death.
“The longline industry was shut down and brought to the brink of bankruptcy,” Brooks said, adding that the remaining 62 boats have been allowed to work only six days so far this year on traditional fishing grounds.
The death statistics only reflect animals that wash onto shore, with no way to count those that sink to the bottom of the Gulf, Brooks said.
Some of the deaths reflected in the numbers may not have been caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, according to Unified Command.
Currently in a three-month closure, the fleet asked for an emergency opening to harvest fish before more of the Gulf is closed, but was denied, with turtle protection given as the reason, he said, adding that due to the oil-related turtle deaths, fishermen may face even more closures if they accidentally kill a sea turtle.
Almost a third of Gulf federal waters are closed to fishing because of the oil spill.
The closures have created the incorrect perception that all Gulf seafood is tainted, fishermen say.
A.P. Bell Fish Co. in Cortez froze 25,000 pounds of grouper last week due to a soft market, according to office manager Karen Bell.
On June 4, Gov. Charlie Crist announced that his request for a Fishery Failure Determination for Florida was granted by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Impacted fishermen now qualify for economic injury loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration. Loan applications can be made at www.sba.gov or by calling 800-659-2955.