Sea Turtles in Peril, Greens Say

WASHINGTON D.C. (CN) – The National Marine Fisheries Service isn’t doing enough to restrict the number of sea turtles caught and killed annually by commercial shrimping operations in the southeast Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, greens claim in a lawsuit.
     Oceana, a nonprofit ocean conservation group warns in a lawsuit filed in the D.C. Federal Court that entire populations of loggerhead, green, leatherback, hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles if the federal regulators fail to intervene.
     All of the turtles listed in the complaint are considered endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act, yet, Oceana claims, the Southeast fisheries at issue in the lawsuit take over half a million of these protected animals a year, killing as many as 50,000 of them.
     “These fisheries kill substantially more sea turtles than all other U.S. Atlantic fisheries combined,” the lawsuit says.
     Oceana says the agencies in charge have violated their responsibility to protect these species by not monitoring or analyzing human impacts, such as the deaths inflicted by shrimp fishing, and have failed to carry out reasonable measures to reduce impacts on sea turtle populations.
     Shrimp trawls, including otter, skimmer, pusher head and butterfly trawls, regularly catch sea turtles, entangling them and causing them harm or death, the group claims.
     Such incidences, called “incidental takes,” are legal only if the designated federal agency formally accepts a certain number of incidental takes up to a particular level. This acceptance is called the “shrimp biological opinion.”
     The biological opinion does not require actual monitoring of takes and fails to follow the quantitative modeling methodology used in prior biological opinions for all other Atlantic fisheries, Oceana says.
     “Apparently because there was good reason to believe that use of this methodology would force the agency to find that the shrimp fisheries placed sea turtles in jeopardy of extinction,” according to the complaint.
     As an example, the complaint highlights findings from the “quantitative modeling methodology” – one method of determining how many sea turtles can safely die without affecting the stability of the population. Using this method, U.S. departments overseeing sea turtle populations found that 619 loggerhead sea turtle deaths a year would not cause jeopardy to the population as a whole. And yet, Oceana says, southeast U.S. fisheries this year anticipate 7,778 loggerhead sea turtles will be killed.
     Sea turtles are considered a “keystone species” because of their crucial role in ecosystem functions, the lawsuit says. They play an important role in the ocean ecosystem by traveling a long distance at sea while serving as “swimming reefs” for barnacles, clams, algae and other species that attach to their shells. They also transport nutrients from offshore feeding areas to near-shore coastal habitats. They are predators of jellyfish and fish and help break up shells of their prey into calcium available for other animals.
     Declines in turtle populations can have detrimental ripple effects throughout the oceanic ecosystem.
     Sea turtles encountering a trawl often try to out swim it, according to the complaint.
     “When the trawl net overtakes the sea turtle, the sea turtle falls into the ‘cod end’ or ‘tail bag’ of the net, becoming trapped underwater. Once captured, sea turtles can drown from being forcibly submerged … become unconscious, or survive, depending on how long they are trapped underwater and other environmental considerations,” the complaint says.
     Most shrimpers are required to use trawl nets outfitted with large cage-like devices with a metal framed trap door that releases 97 percent of turtles caught. These contraptions are called turtle exclusion devices or TEDs.
     Shrimpers operating during particular times of year, using certain equipment for specified durations of time are exempt from using TEDs. The idea behind the exemption is that if the tow-time is short enough, the net will be pulled from the water before a caught sea turtle is submerged long enough to drown, the organization says.
     While TED installation and appropriate use on shrimp boats increased to 65 percent overall by 2012, overall compliance with tow times peaked at just 35 percent, the complaint says.
     TEDs have long been long criticized by shrimpers as being too difficult to use and as making shrimping unprofitable. Both claims have been refuted by federal regulators and in federal courts.
     Oceana seeks a declaration that the Fisheries Service issued a flawed Shrimp Biological Opinion and seeks an injunction requiring the service to correct its mistakes by reinitiating the consultation process that generated the biological opinion. Oceana further wants better enforcement and regulation of TED use and tow times.
     The lawsuit was filed by Gardner Gillespie of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP of Washington, DC.
     A spokeswoman for NOAA Fisheries said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

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