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Turtle Defenders at Loggerheads With Feds

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (CN) - Environmentalists say the Secretary of Commerce and National Marine Fisheries Service are letting longline fishermen kill hundreds of endangered loggerhead sea turtles every year off the coast of Florida.

Longline fishermen, who set as many as 2,100 baited hooks on a single line, killed more than 900 sea turtles between 2006 and 2008, "virtually all of which are thought to have been loggerheads, more than ten times the number authorized in the 2005 Biological Opinion for the Bottom Longline Fishery," according to the federal complaint.

Five environmental groups say the putatively protected loggerhead sea turtle could face extinction unless the fishermen, and the federal agencies, follow the law.

Plaintiffs are the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Gulf Restoration Network and Turtle Island Restoration Network.

They say the NMFS issues a "fundamentally flawed" biological opinion this year, stating that longline fishermen are complying with the Endangered Species Act, and are not jeopardizing sea turtles.

Turtles, which forage on the ocean floor, are often caught on the fisheries' hooks and even if released, may suffer serious injuries and lose their ability to swim, avoid predators and reproduce. The population is especially affected by the removal of older juvenile turtles, who have the highest reproductive potential, according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs want the biological opinion order set aside, and a new one issued that complies with the Endangered Species Act.

Plaintiffs' lead counsel is Stephen Roady with Earthjustice, of Washington, D.C.

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