The North Carolina Fisheries Association  and the Carteret County Fisherman’s Association filed suit in Raleigh on Aug. 5 against several state and federal agencies, citing violations of the Endangered Species Act in regards to protecting sea turtles. This action followed a March 5 letter notifying the agencies they were planning to initiate the suit.   

The NCFA and CCFA are non-profit trade associations representing commercial fishermen, seafood dealers and processors. The suit lists as defendants the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, and Dr. Louis Daniel, executive director of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries and Gordon Myers, executive director of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

The suit alleges the defendants have violated and continue to violate Section 9 of the ESA by allowing the recreational hook-and-line fishery to “operate in a manner that has caused and is continuing to cause the illegal take of endangered Kemp's Ridley sea turtles and the unauthorized take of threatened loggerhead, green and leatherback sea turtles." The suit requests that the court to rule that these ESA violations are occurring and ongoing and order the defendants to implement regulations in the recreational hook-and-line fishery until they receive an incidental take permit and conduct abundance and nesting population surveys of the turtles.

The complaint alleges the defendants have long realized the recreational hook-and-line fishery has been in violation of the ESA in regards to illegal takes of endangered and protected sea turtles but has not taken any action to prevent them. The complaint says that commercial fishermen in the shrimping, large-mesh gill net and long-line fisheries have been, and are, required to adhere to a number of measures in efforts to protect those same sea turtles.

“It's been 120 days and we have not heard one word from the feds,” said Jerry Schill, president of NCFA. “But the state heard from the feds about the lack of observer coverage in the large-mesh gill net fishery in the Albemarle area, resulting in yet more restrictions as per a proclamation issued by DMF last week.

“We have to do something; the question is, what?” Schill said. “I've been involved in this for 25 years. We have TEDS in the shrimp-trawl fishery, circle hooks in the long-line fishery, observers, soak times, closed areas and closed seasons in the gill-net fishery.

“What we want is some real effort to do some studies on the turtle populations as a start to get a handle on when we can take some restrictions off,” Schill said. “When will the species be deemed recovered? Never! The delisting criteria are unattainable! We need a stock assessment, which is what we're saying in the Prayer for Relief section. And we want some help in that process with other users.” 

NCDMF’s Daniel, a defendant, said all he could do is confirm that NCDMF has received notice of the suit and a copy of the filing.

The Coastal Conservation Association-North Carolina, which represents recreational fishermen, originally expressed concerns with the letter sent on March 5 that gave notice of intent to sue, specifically citing the hook-and-line fishery’s relatively small threat to sea turtles and inaccuracies of statistics being quoted.

On Wednesday, David Sneed, executive director of CCANC, said, “CCANC is actively working with our legal counsel and litigation team, assessing the best approach on this important issue for North Carolina fisheries and really, all other U.S. coastal states as well. We take all lawsuits of this nature very seriously and have built a successful track record in litigation through our methodical approach and expert counsel. CCANC will continue to keep our membership and the recreational fishing community informed as this issue continues to develop.”

Several people interviewed said the perceived threat to turtles by the recreational hook-and-line fishery is nowhere near as significant as presented by NCFA and CCFA, but they expressed concerns that a judge could issue an injunction to stop recreational fishing while the case is proceeding and while research and approval of an Incidental Take Permit (ITP) takes plus. There are concerns about how any interruption of recreational fishing would affect the fragile economies in many small, coastal towns. 

Tex Grissom, owner and operator of Tex’s Tackle in Wilmington said, “I just can’t believe the recreational hook-and-line fishery has anywhere near the interactions and affect on sea turtles this suit is claiming. I’ve been fishing here since the late 1970s and have never hooked a sea turtle or seen one hooked. For some of those years I fished a lot, and if this was the problem they claim it is, I should have had it happen or at least seen it happen.

“I’m all for protecting the resource and have supported many measures to that effect, even when they adversely affected my business, Grissom said. “I don’t see this as necessary and am greatly concerned about an overreaction that closes recreational fishing for any period of time. It would affect a huge number of businesses in coastal communities along the entire Atlantic and Gulf coasts. 

“In the tackle business, we’re already dealing with seasonal closures and restricted limits, and if they help the fish, we’re all for them,” Grissom said. “However this has the potential to be devastating. A closure of recreational hook-and-line fishing would effectively close my store and put several employees and me out of jobs. It would also negatively affect many other coastal businesses including marinas, motels, real estate, restaurants and more."