Oceana, the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans, today released a new report outlining violations of sea turtle protection regulations in the Gulf of Mexico Shrimp Fishery. Specifically, the data shows that illegal fishing in the Gulf is killing thousands of threatened and endangered sea turtles, far more than had originally been estimated and approved by the U.S. government under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Oceana’s report documents violations of the fishery to use Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), which allow sea turtles to escape instead of drowning in the nets. It also provides a sea turtle mortality estimate for Gulf bottom otter trawls, taking into account the documented illegal activity. Gulf bottom otter trawls alone are killing at least 4,874 loggerhead and 108 leatherback sea turtles, which is significantly higher than the ESA authorized catch limit for these species for the entire shrimp fishery.
The most egregious violations are vessels fishing without TEDs or with the TED escape hatch intentionally blocked. In fact, 17 percent of the vessels documented in the report were guilty of one of these types of violations.
“17 percent of the Gulf shrimp fishing vessels are killing nearly 90 percent of the sea turtles they encounter,” said Elizabeth Griffin Wilson, senior manager for marine wildlife at Oceana. “This is far more sea turtle deaths than the government originally estimated at approximately three percent.”
In a letter today to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), Oceana notified the government that it will sue unless immediate action is taken to remedy these violations and protect sea turtles.
As a result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, Oceana uncovered official documents from NMFS in May 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. In June, Oceana called for the immediate closure of the Gulf shrimp fishery citing that shrimpers in the region are responsible for the enormous number of sea turtle deaths since the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
“Sea turtles in the Gulf have enough threats without adding illegal fishing into the mix,” said Wilson. “The problem is clear, but there is an even clearer solution. These deaths can and must be stopped.”
Oceana’s analysis, which is based on data from NMFS and state enforcement memos, also separates the violations by state. Here are a few of the key findings: