Oceana, the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans, today is calling for the immediate closure of the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery until and unless adequate sea turtle protections are established and enforced. Oceana is outraged that the fishery was allowed to reopen in two more areas last week despite shocking new evidence that shrimpers in the region are 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 on beaches in 2010, which is more than six times the number of average annual strandings over the last 20 years. Already in 2011, an additional 563 sea turtles have been found washed up on the shores of Gulf states.
“These increased deaths are cause for serious concern and should have triggered an immediate government response,” said Elizabeth Griffin Wilson, marine scientist and senior manager of marine wildlife at Oceana. “Yet here we are, more than a year after the spike in sea turtle deaths began in the Gulf, with no new management measures in place.”
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 turtle excluder device (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.
At this time, the U.S. shrimp fishery is allowed to catch more than 340,000 sea turtles, most of which have been thought to escape through TEDs. NMFS assumed that TEDs are 97 percent effective and authorized the shrimp fishery to kill 1,451 loggerhead sea turtles. If, as the evidence in the NMFS documents obtained by Oceana suggests, poor compliance with the TED requirements decreases the effectiveness rate to 60 percent, the estimated number of loggerheads killed jumps to a shocking 19,348.
“State and federal officials have knowingly allowed sea turtles to be harmed by the shrimp fishery in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Wilson. “It was outrageous and unconscionable to reopen shrimp fisheries without substantial management and enforcement improvements knowing that additional threatened and endangered sea turtles are likely to die by the thousands.”
The solution, as Oceana and other environmental organizations have pointed out, is simple: NMFS must immediately mandate TEDs in all trawls, especially shrimp trawls, and then enforce the law with strong, non-negotiable penalties against those who knowingly violate them and put at risk the very existence of threatened and endangered sea turtle populations. Without these changes, the shrimp fishery should be shut down to avoid driving sea turtles closer to extinction.