Oceana today welcomed a long-overdue federal regulation that will dramatically reduce the number of endangered and threatened sea turtles that die each year when caught in shrimp fishing nets. On February 21, 2003, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a regulation requiring U.S. shrimp fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico and the South Atlantic to use larger turtle excluder device (TED) openings in their nets. TEDs act as escape hatches for sea turtles.
NMFS has known since at least 1999 that the TEDs currently in use are too small to allow the largest sea turtles - particularly leatherbacks, loggerheads and greens - to escape from shrimp nets. With the regulation in place, NMFS expects that annual deaths of endangered leatherback sea turtles will decline from 2,300 to 80 and that annual deaths of loggerheads will decrease from 62,000 to 4,000.
Oceana played a critical leadership role with a coalition of environmental groups over the last two years to provide stronger protections for sea turtles. In addition to leading the legal effort to prompt release of these new regulations, organizing critical support from Congressional allies and leading scientists, Oceana spearheaded the effort to encourage the public to express their opinions on this issue. Of the over 8,000 comments sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service on the proposed rule, over 7700, or 93%, were in support of additional protections for sea turtles.
“We are glad that NMFS paid attention to the overwhelming demand by the public to protect all species of sea turtles by requiring larger TED openings than they initially proposed,” said Charlotte Gray, a Marine Wildlife Scientist for Oceana. “The new size will allow the larger turtles to escape, including mature females that are critical for recovering sea turtle populations.”
“Although NMFS has finally taken the first step in addressing the leading cause of sea turtle deaths in the United States, far too many endangered and threatened sea turtles will continue to die even with the new regulation in place,” said Dr. Michael Hirshfield, Vice President of Science and Economics for Oceana. “NMFS must do more to protect sea turtles, which continue to face many threats to their survival.”
Because the current TEDs are clearly inadequate, South Carolina has already required larger TED openings for nets used in state waters. NMFS initially requested comments on larger TED openings in April 2000. They drafted new regulations to address the issue in October 2001, but failed to finalize them until now. During the comment period, the vast majority of responses urged the agency to enlarge the size of TEDs and implement the new regulation quickly.
“While this federal action is an important step, the regulation has shortcomings that need to be addressed.” said Sylvia Liu, a Senior Attorney for Oceana. “The agency has postponed the effectiveness of the regulation by six months in the Gulf of Mexico, which means that another fishing season will go by without adequate protection. In addition, there is inadequate observer coverage to monitor and enforce the regulation. We plan to continue our work on sea turtle conservation and hold the agency accountable for rebuilding populations of threatened and endangered species.”
Last May, 94 dead sea turtles washed up on Georgia beaches over a two week period following the onset of the shrimp fishing season, including nine egg-bearing females. In response, NMFS imposed an emergency area closure that significantly affected shrimp fishermen in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Last spring, NMFS ordered four emergency closures in the South Atlantic waters as a response to the stranding of sea turtles.
“The shrimp industry argues that the new TEDs will be too costly, but the government's economic analysis estimates that retrofitting a net to comply with the new rule will be $220 per net,” said Ted Morton, Oceana's Federal Policy Director. “This investment to enlarge TEDs will be made up by fewer shrimp fishing seasons that are interrupted by emergency closures because of dead sea turtles washing ashore.”
Oceana is a non-profit international advocacy organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the world's oceans through policy advocacy, science, law and public education. Founded in 2001, Oceana's constituency includes members and activists from more than 190 countries and territories who are committed to saving the world's marine environment. In 2002, the American Oceans Campaign became part of Oceana's international effort to protect ocean eco-systems and sustain the circle of life. Oceana, headquartered in Washington, D.C., has additional offices in key U.S. coastal areas and will open offices in Latin America and Europe in 2003. For more information, please visit www.oceana.org .