Biological and Conference Opinion on the Issuance of a Permit (Number 25686) to the NMFS Southeast Fisheries Science Center to conduct research on sea turtles
The objective of Project B is to develop alternative techniques for the pelagic longline fisheries along the U.S. Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico that mitigate bycatch species, including sea turtles. Research on sea turtles under Project B will occur solely within longline commercial fisheries where the incidental capture is already exempted by an existing ESA Section 7 biological opinion and ITS (NMFS 2020). This project will involve evaluation of modifications to setting techniques that focus on “deep sets” (>100 meters [m]; 328 feet [ft]) for the pelagic longline fishery targeting yellowfin tuna as an alternative to traditional “shallow set” longline gear to avoid prohibited catches of bluefin tuna, with expected reductions in sea turtle bycatch as well. The scope of work for this project in both the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico will include the development and evaluation of mitigation techniques, including the introduction of safe handling and release equipment to safely release sea turtles and other bycatch species in all fisheries aboard commercial fishing vessels. New release and handling equipment prototypes will be developed in the laboratory prior to field testing on live animals. When wild turtles are incidentally captured, researchers will collect basic biological and ecological data to understand species composition, size distribution, movement patterns, habitat use, growth and genetic origin of turtles impacted by this fishery. All turtles encountered during this research are expected to be captured only once, and all turtles will be handled per the guidance in the NMFS programmatic consultation (NMFS 2017b) and the Careful Release Protocols for Sea Turtle Release with Minimal Injury as applicable (NMFS 2019), and all applicable current permit conditions will be followed. If a recapture occurs, turtles will be identified, measured, and released without additional sampling.