Marine Fisheries deflected input on turtle policies after lawsuit

By on August 28, 2017

Five species of sea turtles routinely migrate through the state’s coastal waters, and some lay nests on area beaches. All are on the Endangered Species list, although no stock assessments exist for the marine reptiles, which often migrate through the jurisdictions of multiple countries.

Kemp’s Ridleys, leatherbacks and hawksbills were first placed on the list in 1970. Loggerheads and green sea turtles in 1978.

The Endangered Species Act mandates planned conservation efforts for listed species, and steps taken during the last 30-plus years has resulted in both a visual increase in the sea turtle populations as well as more interactions with human activities.

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While sea turtle populations in U.S. waters are increasing, they are mostly declining in other countries where there are no protections.

In North Carolina, closures protect nests on area beaches. And, in some areas of the Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout national seashores, the numbers of animal predators has been reduced.

Education and outreach efforts have targeted the general public, particularly recreational fishermen who cast their lines from piers, and commercial fishermen.

The commercial fishing industry has added turtle excluder and bycatch reduction devices to trawl nets.

Gill net fisheries in the sound have been restricted or prohibited in certain areas known as turtle “hot spots.”

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The ESA listing mandates that no one can “take” a sea turtle. The term “take” means to intentionally harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.

But there are permits to cover specific activities, such as collection of sea turtles for research.

Those engaging in otherwise lawful activities such as commercial fishing also can be covered by a Section 10 Incidental Take Permit (ITP) that allows incidental takes while complying with a list of requirements aimed at reducing interaction with the species.

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In 2010, there was an existing ITP that allowed the use of large mesh gill nets to catch flounder in certain shallow areas from September through December.

There was no permit nor were there similar conditions set on the use of large mesh net in most of the remaining inshore waters.

But that was about to change.

In February 2010, the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center sued the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission, state Division Marine Fisheries, and former DMF director Louis Daniel for the state’s failure to obtain an ITP to cover all internal coastal waters.

Both parties entered into a mediated settlement to allow flounder fishing to continue while the state applied for the required permit.

Included in the agreement was a list of restrictions that were to stay in place until the ITP could be obtained from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The conditions included restrictions on use of the nets, including limiting soak times to approximately 12 hours, sunset to sunrise, Monday through Friday, as well as net modifications to no more than 15 meshes deep, maximum number of yards and elimination of corks and floats.

The agreement made clear that the restrictions were to be met until there was an ITP issued by the NMFS and that ITP restrictions could be more lenient or more restrictive as long as they helped reduce interactions.

The agreement also called for establishing a Sea Turtle Advisory Committee to review observer reports, come up with ways that fishermen could report interactions, assist in educational efforts, identify ways to reduce the incidental catches, monitor observer program issues and review all future ITP provisions and “take” calculations prior to formal application submission.

Marine Fisheries Commission Chairman Sammy Corbett dissolved the committee in August 2016.

In letters to committee members alerting them of the change, Corbett wrote, “(i)n looking for efficiencies in our committee system, I felt our regional and pertinent standing advisory committees could serve as venues to review and provide the needed input on sea turtle issues.”

Jean Beasley, owner of the sea turtle rescue and rehab center and plaintiff in the lawsuit, said that time serving on the committee was well spent. “I strongly support and learned a lot about commercial and recreational fishing.”

“There was a lot of good dialogue and although we didn’t have rule-making authority, we were able to make recommendations to the MFC,” Beasley said.

“Any time you can bring people together to discuss concerns or offer suggestions, that is a good thing,” Beasley added. “I felt many times that the meetings were one of the places that stakeholders could go to express concerns.”

Minutes show that although many brought their concerns and/or ideas to the committee, often their suggestions for research was deflected by division staff.

And although the committee was charged with reviewing all future ITP provisions and “take” calculations prior to formal application submission, that step appears to to have been ignored by DMF.

According to the minutes, scientist Andy Read resigned after the committee was shut out of helping to write the permit application.

Earlier, Read also opined that the “take” calculations submitted by staff were incorrect.

The settlement also dictated that DMF was to provide observer coverage with a target of 10 percent coverage and a minimum of seven percent. The coverage was not to be static and could be adapted to season, sea turtle behavior and location, as well as other environmental and biological conditions.

If at any time, there were not enough observers or revenue available to support the program, the large mesh gill net fishery was to be closed down until it again could meet the requirement.

In the June 2013 update of the September 2012 ITP application, former DMF Director Louis Daniel wrote that the observer program was being funded through several federal programs as well as state appropriations.

“The NCDMF will continue to receive state appropriated monies and seek additional funding for the continuation of these vital fisheries monitoring programs,” Daniel wrote. “Currently, NCDMF employs 14 observers statewide to cover all estuarine waters.”

“If funding becomes unavailable to comply with the ITP, then NCDMF will close management units to gill nets where observer coverage cannot be obtained,” according to Daniel’s memo. “If this continues, NCDMF will close the estuarine gill-net fisheries to comply with the ITP.”

After several tries during a two-year period, the permit was finally issued in September 2013.

Most of the permit’s conditions and requirements reflect those in the settlement agreement, although it was made clear that those mandates held only until an ITP was issued.

Asked how National Marine Fisheries Service determined the percentage of coverage needed, Jennie Lyons of NOAA Fisheries Public Affairs wrote that the 7 percent observer coverage was not a NOAA request and that Daniel told the agency in writing:

“The goal of NCDMF is to provide 10 percent statewide, estuarine large mesh gill-net trip coverage weekly with a minimum of 7 percent as dictated by the Settlement Agreement.”

That percentage was accepted for the permit since it met the criteria needed to comply with permit conditions, wrote Lyons.

But the story doesn’t end there.

In 2014, the General Assembly announced it was going to reduce appropriations for the Observer Program. Without funding, the flounder fishery would be shut down.

That same year, 1.7 million pounds of southern flounder valued at $4.3 million were landed in North Carolina.

Fishermen agreed to double their own license fees with the additional revenue to be used only to fund the Section 10 observers.

Although more than half of the state’s appropriation for the program had been left unspent in previous years, Daniel told lawmakers that it would cost $1.3 million to provide the necessary coverage.

The statute creating the new license structure, mandates that funds not used from the increased license fees go into a special fund to be spent under the supervision of a committee of commercial fishermen set up to identify specific research projects.

Part three asks, “How is the funding committee working?”

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Comments

Britton Shackelford

August 30, 2017 12:45 pm

The North Carolina Waterman United have been fighting the issues that have restricted access by all fishermen, and the seafood-consuming public, to our fisheries. Countless trips to Raleigh, and countless hours spent meeting with local, state, and federal officials to increase access, and construct ways to continue access, to our fisheries, have been undertaken, and will continue. This work has been accomplished with two part-time staffers, and untold hours of pro Bono time by NCWU board members, and regular members. Our membership dues allow you a seat to discuss positive ways to increase access, and partake in discussion on fishery regulatory actions. Thank you.
Britton Shackelford
President
http://www.ncwu.net

Hank Hill

August 28, 2017 2:17 pm

How about refunding the money to the people that did not agree to the increase????

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