Stronger restrictions on fishing nets lead to lawsuit settlement

May 13, 2010Duke Law News

The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center has reached a settlement agreement with the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) and the Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) in a lawsuit concerning fishing practices that caused the deaths of federally protected sea turtles.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina in February, asked the court to prohibit the State of North Carolina from authorizing the use of gill nets in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The settlement agreement provides for new rules governing gill net fishing practices, in an effort to minimize the incidental catch of sea turtles by gill nets used in in-shore waters.

Among the new rules adopted by the MFC as part of the settlement:
  • New rules will be implemented regarding the size and type of gill nets allowed, and the time frame in which they can be deployed.
  • The state will adopt an enhanced “observer” program, with more observers on the water and a new certification program for volunteer observers.
  • The agreement exempts Currituck Sound and parts of Albemarle Sound, where sea turtle presence has not been confirmed, from the new regulations, pending further scientific study.
  • A committee will be appointed by the MFC and the Beasley Center to advise state authorities on issues surrounding sea turtle protection.

Michelle Nowlin, supervising attorney for the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, which represents the Beasley Center, said the settlement protects the interests of commercial fishermen and endangered sea turtles.

“This settlement recognizes the cultural importance of traditional ways of life in North Carolina’s fishing community,” she said. “We don’t want the fishermen of North Carolina or the sea turtles to become extinct, and these measures will allow both to exist in harmony. We are grateful for the opportunity to work with the State and fishing interests to reach an amicable resolution of the Center’s claims.”

“This settlement is the result of the concentrated and cooperative efforts of all the parties involved,” said Jean Beasley, the executive director of the center. “We are pleased to have reached agreement and look forward to continuing work with the State to protect sea turtles where they nest, breed and forage.”

Law School students Lee Davis ’10 and Patrick Duggan ’10 worked on the lawsuit and the settlement agreement as part of their time in the clinic, as did Nicholas School of the Environment students Jenna Wallis and Courtney Shephard.

All of the five sea turtle species found in North Carolina waters are designated as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. After hatching on the beach, sea turtles spend the rest of their lives in the water, traveling ocean currents and foraging for food. They face a variety of threats, from habitat damage caused by polluted runoff to direct injury and death from being hit by motorboats and ships. Gill nets constitute one of the biggest threats: Sea turtles caught in the nets are trapped underwater, and they typically drown or suffer severe lacerations while struggling to free themselves. As a consequence of these threats, only a small percentage of sea turtles reach reproductive age.

The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center is a nonprofit animal hospital in Topsail Island, N.C., where volunteers have cared for injured and sick sea turtles since 1997.

The center’s director, Jean Beasley, founded the hospital to build on work started by her daughter Karen, who died of terminal cancer soon after organizing a project to protect the turtles nesting on Topsail Island. More than 200 injured and ill turtles have been treated and released back into the wild by the Beasley Center. The Beasley Center treats several individuals from each of the five species found in North Carolina waters — Loggerhead, Green, Leatherback, Kemp’s Ridley and Hawksbills — at any one time.

Duke’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic is a joint venture of Duke’s Law School and its Nicholas School of the Environment. The clinic’s activities are conducted as part of the schools’ academic mission and do not represent an official endorsement or policy of Duke University. The Environmental Law and Policy Clinic and Duke University are not parties to this litigation. Clinical students work in teams on cases and projects with local and regional nonprofit groups on environmental conflicts relating to water quality, air quality, natural resources conservation, sustainable development, public trust resources, and environmental justice, and their work is supervised by licensed attorneys. The clinic represents nonprofit organizations and low-income clients who qualify for representation under the North Carolina State Bar’s practice rules, which allow law students to provide legal services to clients in specific circumstances.

For more information on the settlement agreement, contact Forrest Norman at Norman@law.duke.edu.

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