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Environmentalists To Sue State Department Over Deaths of Endangered Sea Turtles in Foreign Shrimp Nets

Environmentalists filed a 60 Day Notice of Intent to Sue for Violations of the Endangered Species Act against Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in connection with the State Department’s Certification of Shrimp Imports to the United States under the Turtle-Shrimp Law (Pub. L. 101-162 § 609) for its failure to conduct proper environmental review prior to issuing import certifications. A copy of the Sixty Day notice can be found at here.

The Marin County, California-based Turtle Island Restoration Network (“TIRN”), a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of sea turtles and their habitat, claims that the shrimp certification process is in dire need of environmental oversight and review. TIRN has received informal complaints from around the world that the State Department under President Bush has not properly enforced requirements for shrimp vessels to use nets with Turtle Excluder Devices, allowing shrimp caught in ways that are deadly to sea turtles to be sold in the U.S.

“This is not only a tragedy for sea turtles, which die by the tens of thousands in shrimp nets every year, but is unfair to U.S. fishers, who obey the law and must compete in the U.S. marketplace with shrimp imports,” said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network.

“There is a simple, inexpensive, and elegant solution that allows sea turtles to escape drowning in shrimp nets, called a turtle excluder device or TED” said Deborah Sivas, Stanford Law professor, and director of the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic, who filed the notice. “If the State Department can create a reasonable certification program, we can save the lives of thousands of endangered sea turtles while allowing shrimp harvesting to continue.”

“The US certification of Costa Rican shrimp vessels in a sham”, said Randall Arauz, the President of the Costa Rican organization, PRETOMA. “We have continually presented evidence that Costa Rican shrimpers catch thousands of endangered sea turtles because they are not using TEDs, yet the State Department continues to certify Costa Rica based on a one day annual announced inspection of one or two docked vessels.”

Americans consume over 500,000 tons of shrimp annually, and is the top fishery import of the United States, valued at over $3.9 billion in last year, according to government figures.

“US shrimp consumption has a large world-wide impact on the oceans. We need to have a viable certification process, and the first step is completion of legally required environmental review of the current system,” said Margaret E Peloso, a Stanford Law Student working on the case.

Six of the seven species of marine turtles are listed as endangered or threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and all marine turtle species are also on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List and face serious, ongoing threats from a number of fishery sources. Among the most serious human-created threats to the survival of sea turtles are habitat destruction and fishery interactions.

Each year, tens of thousands of turtles are killed through interactions with shrimp fisheries. Because turtles breathe air, they frequently drown when they become entangled in fishing gear and are unable to surface. In trawl fisheries, large nets are dragged by a boat to capture shrimp. When turtles become caught in these nets, they drown if they cannot escape and access the surface.

The necessary access to surface air can be readily provided through the installation of turtle excluder devices (“TEDs”). TEDs function by providing an escape hatch for sea turtles caught in trawl nets. The TED consists of a grate and an opening in the net. When the turtle swims into the grate, it is subsequently freed through the hole in the net. While the impact of TEDs on fishery yields has been debated, it is widely accepted that TEDs are a highly effective means of reducing sea turtle mortality in shrimp trawl nets that have minimal impacts on fishery yields.

“TEDs can be extremely effective in reducing sea turtle mortality, if widespread use is encouraged and enforced in the global shrimp fishery. If the current administration won’t take the proper actions required by law, we are hopeful we can get positive changes early next year,” said Steiner.