Sea turtles still need protection despite fishing groups' claims, supporters say

zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comMarch 8, 2014 

Sea Turtles

Loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings

AP FILE PHOTO

A local scientist and area fishermen agree that sea turtles still need protection, despite a lawsuit by commercial fishermen in North Carolina aimed at loosening federal endangered-species safeguards for the animals.

In a notice this week to federal agencies, the N.C. Fisheries Association and an advocacy group there said sea turtles "are at or near recovery and strict regulation is unwarranted."

The notice gives the federal government 60 days to assess how many turtles inhabit the ocean -- or the groups will take further legal action.

But it's too soon to consider changing the protections offered sea turtles under the Endangered Species Act because populations are just beginning to improve, said Amber Kuehn, manager of the Hilton Head Island Sea Turtle Protection Project.

"Because they're so long lived, it takes them 25 to 30 years to become sexually mature," Kuehn said. "Relatively, we've only just begun to see the effect of conservation efforts passed decades ago."

On Hilton Head Island, the Protection Project has witnessed a steady increase in loggerhead turtle nests for the past 10 years, and numbers all along the coasts of North and South Carolina also have improved, Kuehn said.

However, the N.C. Fisheries Association said commercial anglers have been unfairly burdened by federal agencies in the effort to protect sea turtles. The group says recreational fisherman and boaters have not been asked to share the responsibility.

Local fishermen Craig Reaves and Charles Gay agreed. Both men own and operate shrimping companies in northern Beaufort County and said regulation, such as the turtle excluder devices required in shrimping nets, have put a large burden on commercial fishermen.

Although both said they'd like to see restrictions loosened, Reaves and Gay agreed the regulations will be in place for a long time to come.

"I don't think that fishing regulations, especially the turtle excluder device, are going anywhere," Kuehn said.

The (Columbia) State staff writer Sammy Fretwell contributed to this report. Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.

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