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Oceana Magazine Fall 2011: Shrimp’s Dirty Little Secret

By Emily Fisher

Imagine going for a swim in the ocean when an enormous net drags you under.

This is the reality for many sea turtles. The waters off the southeast U.S. and Gulf of Mexico are important habitat for loggerhead, Kemp’s ridley, leatherback, hawksbill and green sea turtles, all of which are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. These waters are also important fishing grounds for the U.S. shrimp fishery.  

This summer, Oceana released a new report showing that fishing in the Gulf illegally kills thousands of threatened and endangered sea turtles, far more than had originally been estimated and allowed by the U.S. government under the Endangered Species Act.

As a result of a Freedom of Information Act request, Oceana uncovered government documents revealing that shrimp trawlers often flout the law that requires them to protect sea turtles by using turtle excluder devices (TEDs), which are essentially turtle escape hatches in fishing nets. Without TEDs, shrimp trawls can become sea turtle death traps.

In 2010, more than 600 sea turtles were found either dead or injured in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, which is more than six times the average over the last two decades. And already in 2011, more than 460 have washed up dead or injured in these three states alone. And since only a small portion of dead or injured sea turtles washes up on shore, the real number of dead turtles is much higher.

Fortunately, there’s an obvious fix. As Oceana and other environmental organizations have pointed out, the government must require TEDs in all trawl nets, especially shrimp trawls, and enforce these regulations.

Here’s the way it works: Under the Endangered Species Act, the government allows fisheries to injure or kill a specific number of sea turtles, and more than 98 percent of all sea turtle interactions authorized to U.S. fisheries are allotted to the shrimp fishery. The government assumed that TEDs are 97 percent effective at allowing sea turtles to escape, permitting the fishery to kill 1,451 loggerhead sea turtles each year.

But that assumption is fundamentally flawed, according to the data Oceana obtained from the government: 17 percent of the shrimping boats in the Gulf were fishing without TEDs or with the TED escape hatch intentionally blocked. That means that the estimated number of loggerheads killed could be more than 4,800 – a huge number, especially considering that loggerhead nesting in many areas of the Southeast is in decline.

According to Oceana’s estimates, the bottom otter trawls fishing for shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico are killing more than 4,800 loggerheads and 100 leatherbacks annually, which is significantly higher than the government-tauthorized limit for these species for the entire shrimp fishery.

An otter trawl is a cone-shaped net held open in the front by large, heavy panels. Due to the indiscriminate nature of the nets, their relationship with sea turtles has always been fraught. In the 1980s, the National Research Council estimated that shrimp trawls were responsible for more loggerhead and Kemp’s ridley sea turtle deaths than any other human activity.

“Sea turtles in the Gulf have enough threats without adding illegal fishing into the mix,” said Elizabeth Griffin Wilson, senior manager for marine wildlife at Oceana. “The problem is clear, but there is an even clearer solution: enforce the existing requirement that shrimp trawls use TEDs and go even further to require them in all fisheries that fish with trawl nets. These deaths can and must be stopped.”


Oceana’s Campaign

Oceana’s campaign to save sea turtles is working internationally to reduce the incidental capture of sea turtles in fishing gear and protect key turtle habitat.

In September, Oceana scored a bittersweet victory for sea turtles. In response to two petitions from Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network, the U.S. government announced  it would uplist the status of North Pacific loggerheads from “threatened” to “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act, while leaving the Northwest Atlantic population listed as threatened, despite scientific evidence supporting uplisting.

The good news for both populations is the decision triggered a process to review stronger protections for their habitat.