Saving Sea Turtles by Improving Shrimp Boat Nets

Faithful readers of The Weedpatch Gazette will recall that I’ve veered away from plants and land conservation several times to write about how to save endangered sea turtles. I get especially passionate about this issue when we visit the Florida Keys. A stop in Marathon to see (maimed) turtles at The Turtle Hospital will make you realize that there can be a big downside to a day on a motorboat or eating a big plate of shrimp.

Boats, pollution from sewage (yes, it’s true, the Florida Keys are JUST NOW stopping their sewage from going into the ocean), and plastic bottles and grocery bags kill and maim these incredible creatures. The Atlantic Ocean is home to five out of the seven of the world’s species of sea turtles. All five are endangered–in danger of no longer breeding or living in the ocean. Can you imagine our lives without sea turtles?

Enter the National Marine Fisheries Service–which is part of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which is part of the U.S. Dept of Commerce. Commerce will likely soon be headed by Wilbur Ross, billionaire steel- and shipping investor who will preside over, ahem, trade deals. This not only means issues like the TPP, but also Japan, Iceland, and Norway’s fishing of whales and our research on weather, climate science, melting ice, rising seas, and yes, sea turtles.

Last week the National Marine Fisheries Service at long last issued a proposed rule updating a proposed rule issued in 2012 (!) which was developed as a result of settling a lawsuit filed by several groups: the Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island Restoration Network, Sea Turtle Conservancy and Defenders of Wildlife. The lawsuit was filed after 3,500 turtles turned up injured or dead in the Gulf of Mexico in the year after the BP Oil Spill (April, 2010). [See below]

By law all but one group of American ocean-fishing shrimp boats must use TED nets. (Imported shrimp must also prove that their boats use TEDs.) The new proposal would include those boats currently exempted: shrimp boats that fish in bays and estuaries. Instead of using TED nets, these boats limited the amount of time they fished, but that time restriction on them appears not to have helped the turtles enough. The turtles died en masse.

While I think most fishermen want to do right by animals even at some cost to themselves, I hope that the shrimp boat owners in shallower waters don’t put up a big stink and derail the rule. It’s possible though. Here’s the backstory as described in a 2010 article in the NYTimes describing the massive deaths of sea turtles not long after the BP Oil Spill:

Shrimpers emerged as a prime suspect in the NOAA investigation when, after a round of turtle necropsies in early May, Dr. Stacy announced that more than half the carcasses had sediment in the airways or lungs — evidence of drowning. The only plausible explanation for such a high number of drowning deaths, he said, was, as he put it, “fisheries interaction.”

Environmentalists saw the findings as confirmation of their suspicions that shrimpers, taking advantage of the fact that the Coast Guard and other inspectors were busy with the oil spill, had disabled their turtle excluder devices.

The devices are so contentious that Louisiana law has long forbidden its wildlife and fisheries agents to enforce federal regulations on the devices. Last month, Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed legislation that would have finally lifted the ban, citing the “challenges and issues currently facing our fishermen.” By contrast, Mississippi officials strengthened turtle protections by decreasing the allowable tow time for skimmers, posting observers on boats, and sending out pamphlets on turtle resuscitation.

Officials in both states say that turtles die in shrimp season even when shrimpers follow the law, from boat strikes and other accidents. They also say there have been far fewer shrimpers working since the spill, in part because many have hired out their boats to BP. That should mean fewer, not more, turtle deaths.

But there has also been illegal activity. In Louisiana, agents have seized more than 20,000 pounds of shrimp and issued more than 350 citations to commercial fishermen working in waters closed because of the oil spill. In Mississippi in June, three skimmer boats were caught exceeding legal tow times — one just hours after the shrimper had been given a handout explaining that the maximum time had been reduced, Lieutenant Armes said.

As for the piece of shrimp that Dr. Stacy found lodged in the turtle’s throat during the necropsy, it, too, pointed to shrimpers. A turtle is normally not quick enough to catch shrimp, Dr. Stacy said. Unless, of course, it is caught in a net with them.”

Please let NOAA Fisheries know by Feb 14 what you think of the rule (even if all you do is send them a link to this article). Please also do all you can to encourage conservative businessman Wilbur Ross to approve it. Maybe send him your message in a plastic water bottle?

A sea turtle will thank you…##

Here’s how the new net that releases turtles, sharks and other large animals works:

Posted on by weedpatchgazette in Conservation and Ecology, Environmental Protection, Politics of Conservation, Uncategorized

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