Endangered Sea Turtles:

Better Coordination, Data Collection, and Planning Could Improve Federal Protection and Recovery Efforts

GAO-12-242: Published: Jan 31, 2012. Publicly Released: Mar 1, 2012.

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What GAO Found

The services have coordinated some sea turtle protection efforts, including jointly developing recovery plans, and they established a memorandum of understanding in 1977 to define their roles in joint administration of their efforts. Nevertheless, neither the memorandum nor the services have clearly defined how and when the services are to coordinate; also, the services do not consistently share information about the majority of the take they authorize. According to sea turtle experts GAO spoke with, each service may therefore be authorizing sea turtle take without knowing how much its counterpart has authorized, and the combined allowance may be harming threatened and endangered sea turtles and delaying their recovery.

NMFS and FWS each use databases that collect information about consultations involving take of sea turtles and other species, but they do not use these databases to comprehensively collect and analyze sea turtle take data. Specifically, not all of the databases require entry of data on anticipated and actual take. The services also maintain separate documents that collect information about anticipated take, but these documents are not structured to easily allow analysis of total anticipated take and do not track actual take. According to some experts and NMFS officials GAO spoke with, total take should be considered when the services determine whether proposed actions are likely to jeopardize species or approve additional take authorizations.

Biological opinions prepared by NMFS and FWS do not clearly explain how the services determine that an action anticipated to result in the take of sea turtles will not jeopardize their continued existence. Guidance developed by the services states that the opinions should be written so the general public can trace the path of logic to the conclusion. But some experts GAO spoke with said, and GAO’s review of selected biological opinions found, that the opinions may not clearly describe why the services conclude that a particular action, such as commercial fishing anticipated to harm turtles, will not jeopardize the species’ existence. If the analyses and decisions in the opinions are not clear, neither Congress nor the public can be assured that the services are adequately protecting vulnerable sea turtle populations as required by the Endangered Species Act.

Neither NMFS nor FWS has developed its own service-specific operational plans describing the actions it will perform to achieve the goals in their jointly prepared sea turtle recovery plans. In the absence of service-specific plans, the services rely on the jointly developed recovery plans to guide their sea turtle protection and recovery efforts. But GAO’s review of these recovery plans found that they do not include key elements of effective planning, such as performance measures to gauge progress toward goals. Without service-specific plans and performance measures, neither service can ensure that it is taking the steps needed to realize sea turtle recovery goals.

Why GAO Did This Study

All six species of sea turtles found in U.S. waters and nesting on U.S. shores are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Two federal agencies—the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)—are charged with protecting sea turtles, NMFS when the turtles are at sea and FWS on land. The act prohibits the “take,” including harassment or killing, of protected species. The services (NMFS and FWS) can, however, authorize take under certain circumstances. The act also requires recovery plans for each listed species, which set forth broad goals and recovery strategies. GAO was asked to determine the extent to which the services (1) coordinate their sea turtle protection activities, (2) collect and analyze take data, (3) clearly explain how they determine if a proposed action will jeopardize sea turtles, and (4) have developed operational plans to help realize recovery goals. To address these issues, GAO reviewed documents and interviewed officials from both services and experts, including state agency officials, university researchers, and representatives of environmental and industry groups.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making four recommendations to the Secretaries of Commerce and the Interior to improve the services’ sea turtle coordination, data collection, reporting, and planning efforts. Both NMFS and FWS generally agreed with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Anu K. Mittal at (202) 512-3841 or mittala@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: We will follow up with the agency.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of the services' sea turtle protection and recovery efforts, that the Secretary of Commerce should direct the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, and that the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of FWS, to revise the existing memorandum of understanding to clarify what specific steps the services will take to coordinate before issuing or denying sea turtle take permits, steps that, at a minimum, should include sharing data on the take each service has authorized. In addition, the memorandum should be revised to include section 7 take statements, and the services should adhere to the terms of the revised memorandum.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: We will follow up with the agency.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of the services' sea turtle protection and recovery efforts, that the Secretary of Commerce should direct the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, and that the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of FWS, to revise the existing memorandum of understanding to clarify what specific steps the services will take to coordinate before issuing or denying sea turtle take permits, steps that, at a minimum, should include sharing data on the take each service has authorized. In addition, the memorandum should be revised to include section 7 take statements, and the services should adhere to the terms of the revised memorandum.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) told GAO in July 2012 that it had developed an interactive form to enable staff to enter sea turtle take data. The form feeds into the service's data system which can be accessed by all FWS field staff with sea turtle responsibilities. Since March 2012, FWS also requires staff to enter data into the form on authorized sea turtle take and data for actual take when such take can be determined. Furthermore, staff are required to analyze the take data each time they prepare a biological opinion.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of the services' sea turtle protection and recovery efforts, that the Secretary of Commerce should direct the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, and that the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of FWS, to modify each service's existing databases or develop new ones to require entry and analysis of authorized and actual take data.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: We will follow up with the agency.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of the services' sea turtle protection and recovery efforts, that the Secretary of Commerce should direct the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, and that the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of FWS, to modify each service's existing databases or develop new ones to require entry and analysis of authorized and actual take data.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: We will follow up with the agency.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of the services' sea turtle protection and recovery efforts, that the Secretary of Commerce should direct the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, and that the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of FWS, to direct NMFS and FWS staff to write biological opinions so that the analyses they conduct and the rationale they use in arriving at the jeopardy or no jeopardy determination for actions anticipated to result in the take of sea turtles are clearer and more transparent.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: We will follow up with the agency.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of the services' sea turtle protection and recovery efforts, that the Secretary of Commerce should direct the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, and that the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of FWS, to direct NMFS and FWS staff to write biological opinions so that the analyses they conduct and the rationale they use in arriving at the jeopardy or no jeopardy determination for actions anticipated to result in the take of sea turtles are clearer and more transparent.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: We will follow up with the agency.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of the services' sea turtle protection and recovery efforts, that the Secretary of Commerce should direct the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, and that the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of FWS, to develop operational plans specific to NMFS and FWS, which should describe the activities each service will perform to achieve the goals established in sea turtle recovery plans and include key elements of effective plans that we identified in this report. Such plans should be coordinated among the regional and field offices within both services, as well as between the services' headquarters.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: We will follow up with the agency.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of the services' sea turtle protection and recovery efforts, that the Secretary of Commerce should direct the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, and that the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of FWS, to develop operational plans specific to NMFS and FWS, which should describe the activities each service will perform to achieve the goals established in sea turtle recovery plans and include key elements of effective plans that we identified in this report. Such plans should be coordinated among the regional and field offices within both services, as well as between the services' headquarters.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

 

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