If the government updates a decade-old regulation, many more sea turtles may escape drowning in fishing nets. Experts at Oceana, a new international marine conservation organization, say fishing rules must be modernized to allow bigger sea turtles a chance to swim to safety.
Scientists say the number one threat to sea turtles is destructive fishing gear, which unintentionally hooks, tangles, or drowns sea turtles, as well as other marine wildlife. The U.S. lists all five species of sea turtles as threatened or endangered, due in large part to these destructive fishing practices.
Worldwide every year, destructive fishing gear catches and kills an estimated 27 million tons of non-target (“bycatch”) wildlife such as porpoises, seals, juvenile fish, sharks, and sea turtles.
Shrimp trawls, the best known examples of wasteful fishing gear, drag heavy nets along the ocean bottom scraping up everything in their path, including sea turtles. The turtles drown and may wash up (strand) on nearby beaches unless shrimpers properly install trap doors (called “Turtle Excluder Devices” or TEDs) in their nets. If the trap doors are large enough, the turtles swim out of the shrimp nets alive.
Although many believed the TED requirements in place since 1992 protected all sea turtles, scientists discovered in 1999 that the minimum TED openings were too small for some of the larger species, such as leatherback and loggerhead turtles.
“Large sea turtles, such as leatherbacks, still drown in shrimp nets,” explained Tanya Dobrzynski, Marine Ecosystems Specialist at Oceana.
Government researchers found that nearly half the stranded loggerhead turtles were larger than the required escape openings. On the eastern Gulf of Mexico beaches, more than 83% of loggerhead turtles that washed up were too big to get through the trap doors.
“Unlike many of the issues facing the oceans today, we are lucky to have a technology fix for this problem,” said Charlotte Gray, Marine Resources Specialist at Oceana. “This fix is good for shrimpers, too, because if they install the bigger TED correctly there is virtually no loss of shrimp.”
Environmentalists support increasing the TED openings to a size that would allow all sea turtles to escape unharmed. Increasing TED escape openings could reduce loggerhead sea turtle deaths by about 36% to 40%.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, which regulates commercial fisheries and protects sea turtles and other marine wildlife, proposes expanding the TED opening requirement (66 Fed. Reg. 50148, October 2, 2001) sometime in 2003.
Conservationists want shrimpers to expand their TED openings as soon as possible. “Another year without this change means another year of counting big sea turtles dead on the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic,” said Dobrzynski.
NMFS Technical Report on TED openings (1999)
NMFS Web page on TEDs
NMFS Photos of TED use