Along with our partners, we developed a geographic information system (GIS) tool to help coastal managers work toward reducing the bycatch of sea turtles in U.S. fisheries in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. The system factors in sea turtle distribution, commercial fishing activity, observed takes (bycatch) of sea turtles, federal and state regulations relevant to sea turtles, and oceanographic conditions.
Why We Care
All five species of sea turtles inhabiting the US Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico are listed as either endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and none have met the recovery goals outlined by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Trends in populations are difficult to determine, but, among the five species, only the Kemp’s Ridley has shown a long-term, strongly increasing trend in the number of nesting females (the most common measure of population status). Loggerheads nest predominately from North Carolina through the panhandle of Florida, and these beaches comprise the second largest nesting assemblage in the world. Along the mainland US, the leatherbacks and green turtles nest almost exclusively in Florida. United States inshore and offshore waters from Maine to Texas provide critically important habitat for feeding, migration, courtship, and mating. Incidental capture in fisheries is a major limiting factor in the recovery of sea turtles in these areas.
What We Did
The NMFS is responsible for protecting sea turtles in the marine environment and has implemented conservation and monitoring programs, regulations, and other actions under the ESA to recover these species. To further help meet ESA recovery goals for sea turtles, NMFS began implementing a strategic approach that focuses on fishing gear types known to take sea turtles across their range in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Sea turtle conservation measures were developed using all elements of the strategy, including information gathering, research and analysis, and stakeholder involvement.
An excellent example of the power of this tool to help reduce turtle bycatch is an analysis of trawl gear. When considering new turtle exclusion device (TED) standards for trawl gear, biologists must know how many turtles were caught in trawl gear in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico after the most recent TED designs were implemented. This tool will calculate that figure and break down each turtle caught by trawl fishery, location, and date.
The dynamic GIS system for sea turtles facilitates the implementation of NMFS’ strategic objective and assists meeting other ESA and legislative responsibilities, including maps of turtle distribution and in-depth analyses of turtle bycatch. Our fully integrated GIS program for turtles is cross-regional and serves the national interest of protecting sea turtles.