Conservationists Say Shrimpers Got Pass to Kill Thousands of Turtles

The U.S. government was ready to adopt netting rules that would save up to 2,500 turtles a year, according to a new federal complaint, but the scaled-back plan it went with covers only a fraction of vessels.

The National Marine Fisheries Service included this diagram of a turtle-excluder device or TED in a 2019 Environmental Impact Statement to Reduce the Incidental Bycatch and Mortality of Sea Turtles in the Southeastern U.S. Shrimp Fisheries. (Image via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — For every pound of shrimp it can haul in, standard trawling gear will kill about 3 pounds of unintentionally caught marine life — including thousands of endangered sea turtles each year.

Suing the National Marine Fisheries Service in federal court on Tuesday, three environmental groups say that a simple “escape flap” would bring turtle bycatch numbers way down — but the agency has opted not to force such requirements on most shrimp trawlers in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

“The shrimp trawling industry comprises the greatest source of mortality to sea turtles,” said Jaclyn Lopez, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed suit along with Defenders of Wildlife and Turtle Island Restoration Network. “And it’s not a mystery how to stop it.” 

Shrimp otter trawls are already required to have equipment known as turtle-excluder devices, and the Obama administration estimated that it could prevent up to 2,5000 sea turtle deaths a year if it made these so-called TEDs a blanket requirement.

Though it proposed in 2016 that skimmer trawls, pusher-head trawls, wing nets and other types of gear lose their TED exemption, the agency scaled back the rule change three years later.

“The final rule requires TEDs only on skimmer trawl vessels longer than 40 feet, exempting shorter skimmer trawl vessels and all vessels using pusher-head trawls or wing nets,” Tuesday’s complaint states.

Though the new rule expands TED use beyond current requirements, the exemptions will still cause some 1,300 more turtle deaths a year by the agency’s own estimates.

Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. (National Park Service photo via Courthouse News)

“It came as a surprise to everyone,” said EarthJustice attorney Chris Eaton, claiming that the public and scientific community had no knowledge that the National Marine Fisheries Services was even considering the gutted proposal. 

Conservationists say that TEDs are necessary because of lack of adherence to other requirements like tow-time restrictions — which require shrimpers to pull their nets out of the water and release any captured sea turtles at required intervals. 

The groups are challenging the weakened rule under the Endangered Species Act, as five threatened or endangered species of sea turtles are among those swept up by shrimp trawlers in southeastern shrimp fisheries

“Something is better than nothing. But it’s half as good as what could have been,” Lopez said. “If the agency had stayed their course and followed science then we would have regulations that work — rather than these half measures.”

The shrimp industry claims that the TEDs are too expensive and they would hinder their shrimp catch. 

TEDs cost between $325 and $550 per net, but funding is available for shrimpers to offset the cost. For example, the state of Louisiana will reimburse up to 60% of the cost for TEDs for shrimping nets used in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Several shrimp industry representatives did not respond to requests for comment, nor did the National Marine Fisheries Service. 

“We are hopeful that the agency agrees to take swift action to correct this problem,” Lopez said. “They don’t have to redo everything. We already have the scientific evidence — we just need the political will and support.” 

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