Bought any summer flounder, scup, black sea bass, Atlantic mackerel, squid or Atlantic butterfish lately for a delicious dinner? You may might as well have ordered turtle soup.
You won't see this on any label at the fish counter, but the methods used to catch those six fish slaughtered hundreds of loggerhead sea turtles, a threatened species, according to the ocean conservation group Oceana, which is urging the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to stop the unnecessary killing, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate loggerheads in the Northwest Atlantic as an endangered species.
Loggerhead turtles have been listed as a threatened species since 1978 because their numbers are significantly in decline. In 2007, Oceana and the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service, requesting that a subset of the loggerhead population -- those in the western North Atlantic -- be classified as endangered, affording their habitat additional protection than the species is granted as a threatened species. On Florida beaches, where most loggerhead nesting in the U.S. takes place, there has been a 41% decline in nesting loggerhead turtles since 1998.
Update: The latest data suggests that protection can't come too soon for this species. In 2009, loggerheads had one of the worst nesting seasons on record, according to Oceana. While nesting numbers were stable in Georgia, they were down significantly in North Carolina, and down down 15% in Florida, where 90% of U.S. loggerheads nest.
In its recovery plan for the species, the Fish and Wildlife Service lists bottom trawling as the first "highest priority threat" to the species, and recommends the use of "turtle excluder devices" in trawling nets to reduce turtle deaths.
Fishermen targeting those six fish in the Atlantic -- summer flounder, scup, black sea bass, Atlantic mackerel, squid or Atlantic butterfish -- from roughly Massachusetts to Florida, with trawl nets are killing 10 times more loggerhead turtles than allowed under the Endangered Species Act, according to Oceana.
"Without an avenue for escape, sea turtles likely drown when captured in trawl fishing gear due to forced submergence," the group claims. "If they do escape, they are often injured from the great stress of being netted and are left more susceptible to further injuries and death."
Bycatch -- as killing of unwanted species in fishing gear is called -- is one factor that lands fish on "do not buy" lists like those published by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Monteray Bay Aquarium. Proving just how difficult buying seafood ethically is, though, of the six problematic fisheries identified by Oceana, only Atlantic summer flounder makes it onto both groups' "do not eat" lists. Both black bass and squid are listed as "ok" choices -- not the best, not the worst. Monteray Bay Aquarium lists mackerel as a best choice, and scup as an ok choice, while Environmental Defense Fund doesn't make a recommendation either way.
Beyond choosing fish that aren't caught by killing turtles, you can help sea turtles if you own or rent beachfront property. Oceana recommends simply turning off beach lights, which otherwise disrupt sea turtles' ability to navigate to nesting grounds. See more ocean conservation facts and tips from Oceana.
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