Oceana, the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans, said today that the U.S. government is failing to protect sea turtles from destructive shrimp trawls in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. Oceana’s reaction follows an announcement today that the government will be conducting a formal analysis of the shrimp fishery’s impact on threatened and endangered sea turtles and will be considering options for additional protections. Additionally, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) will be holding a series of public meetings from North Carolina to Louisiana to discuss the issue.
The alternatives being considered by the government include; (1) requiring all skimmer trawls and similar trawls in federal and state waters of both the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico to use Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs); and (2) time and area closures that would apply to all shrimp vessels in these waters.
“With everything we now know, the government should be taking giant steps, not baby steps,” said Elizabeth Griffin Wilson, marine scientist and senior manager of marine wildlife at Oceana. “The U.S. government has a responsibility to act immediately to protect these threatened and endangered sea turtles. The U.S. government should be issuing a proposal at this stage, not just soliciting ideas.”
Earlier this month, Oceana called for the immediate closure of the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery until and unless adequate sea turtle protections were established and enforced. Oceana was outraged that the fishery was allowed to continue operating despite shocking evidence of noncompliance with existing sea turtle protection regulations and evidence that shrimpers in the region are likely responsible for enormous numbers of sea turtle deaths since the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. In fact, more than 600 sea turtles were found severely injured or dead in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in 2010, which is more than six times the average annual number of turtles found over the last 20 years. Already in 2011, an additional 398 sea turtles have been found washed up on the shores of these three states.
“TED requirements are not enough,” said Wilson. “The U.S. government must ensure compliance with these requirements and also put in place temporary closures for areas with the largest aggregations of sea turtles. Closures are necessary because the repeated capture of sea turtles on highly fished shrimping grounds can cause serious harm.”
As a result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, Oceana uncovered official documents from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) that identified serious violations of TED requirements and a failure by the government to require TEDs in skimmer trawls, although the documents clearly demonstrate that such protections were and are necessary to prevent sea turtles from being caught and drowned.
TEDs are devices installed in trawl nets that allow sea turtles to escape instead of drowning in the nets. One type of shrimp trawls – “skimmer trawls” – have not been required to use TEDs to date, despite fishing in areas where sea turtles are present. Although skimmer trawls are supposed to limit the duration of each tow to specified time limits in order to prevent sea turtles accidentally caught from drowning, NMFS has admitted that it is almost impossible to enforce tow time limits on the water and it is unclear whether fishermen are even aware of the restrictions.
What many might not know is that under the Endangered Species Act, NMFS authorizes commercial and recreational fisheries to injure or kill a specific number of sea turtles. More than 98 percent of all sea turtle interactions authorized to U.S. fisheries are given to the shrimp fishery.