In fisheries around the world, bycatch – the unintentional capture of non-targeted species – constitutes an estimated 40 percent of the total catch. Bycatch accounts for approximately 63 billion pounds of wasted seafood every year, but also includes animals that are threatened or endangered. If we want healthy oceans that can feed the world responsibly, we have to reduce bycatch. Fortunately, a recent report from Oceana highlights a key opportunity to reduce bycatch of threatened and endangered sea turtles that live in U.S. waters. An industry-wide requirement for improved Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) – a device added to fishing gear that provides an escape hatch for sea turtles, helps prevent sea turtle deaths in nets and decreases wasted catch – on all U.S. Southeast shrimp trawling vessels would generate economic and environmental benefits while setting a positive example for the rest of the world.
The U.S. shrimp trawl fishery generates over $680 million every year, with the majority of the catch coming from the Southeast region. But shrimp trawl fisheries, which rely on large nets hauled across great distances, are among the worst offenders when it comes to bycatch. In 2013, an estimated 242 million pounds of seafood and ocean wildlife were discarded as waste by the Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawl fishery, bycatch that would have been worth as much as $350 million had the commercially-fished species been of marketable size. Furthermore, an estimated 50,000 threatened and endangered sea turtles are captured and killed every year in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico by U.S. shrimp trawlers. With potential financial loss equivalent to half of the entire industry’s annual revenue and indiscriminate destruction of dwindling marine species, the Southeast shrimp trawl fishery’s current practices are neither economically nor environmentally acceptable.
TEDs are a simple solution that would address both of these problems. Based on the report’s findings, Oceana proposes a federal requirement for the implementation of improved TEDs, which have a new design – one that essentially narrows the grates to stop sea turtles and other non-targeted fish from being scooped up into the net - that cuts fish bycatch by an estimated additional 25 percent. These low-cost, long-lasting specialized new TEDs will reduce bycatch without significantly impacting the shrimp catch.
Currently, shrimp from the Southeast skimmer trawl fishery (with the exception of Florida) are all red-listed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, a popular consumer guide to buying sustainable seafood. Implementation of TEDs could help lead to the reclassification of their shrimp, granting the fishermen access to thousands of new buyers. The implementation of TEDs on all Southeast shrimp trawl vessels would also reduce stress on other commercial and recreational fisheries, as the 242 million pounds of bycatch discarded by Gulf shrimp trawls each year includes nearly 90 million pounds of species, like red snapper, known to be economically valuable. Finally, the implementation of TEDs would protect thousands of threatened and endangered sea turtles in America’s southeastern waters, a laudable goal that would also bolster the region’s tourism industry.
Responsible fishery management practices frequently serve the long-term interests of both environmentalists and the people who depend on the ocean for their livelihoods. We can protect vulnerable sea turtle populations while providing jobs and food for people around the world – but the time for the Obama administration to act is now.
For the oceans,