Proposed emergency action to protect sea turtles would affect grouper catch

— A federal panel that sets fishing rules in the Gulf of Mexico has asked for emergency action to protect threatened loggerhead sea turtles.

The number of turtles, many of which nest on Southwest Florida beaches, that have been caught by long lines used by grouper fishing boats has exceeded authorized levels, according to a 2006-2007 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is asking NOAA Fisheries Services to enact a temporary rule banning longline reef fishing in waters less than 300 feet deep in the eastern Gulf. Longline fishing gear has miles of line set with thousands of hooks.

If NOAA enacts the rule, it would be in place for 180 days and could be extended for another 180 days while the Gulf Council comes up with a long-term plan.

The plan might include requirements to modify the gear used by longliners, closing some areas to longline fishing and reducing catch levels.

In an 18-month period from June 2006 to December 2007, longline fishing boats caught more than 900 sea turtles, 799 of which were identified as loggerheads, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. More than 300 of the turtles were dead, according to estimates.

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