Ocean Conservation Groups Support Turtle Excluder Devices in Skimmer Trawl Fleet

WHAT: Federal fishery managers will hold public hearings on a new proposal to close a deadly loophole in shrimp fishery laws to protect sea turtles.

• June 4, 6-8 p.m., Larose Regional Park and Civic Center, 307 East 5th Street, Larose, LA.
• June 5, 4-6 p.m., Belle Chasse Community Center, 8398 Highway 23, Belle Chasse, LA.

MEDIA AVAILABILITY: Conservation representatives in favor of the additional protections for sea turtles are available for interviews. Photos and B-roll available on request.

NEWS and FACTS: The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is proposing to require turtle excluder devices (TEDs) in all shrimp boats that fish with skimmer trawls — gear used primarily in shallow water, like Louisiana’s coastal waters, bays and estuaries. TEDs allow sea turtles, finfish and other marine life to escape shrimp nets. TEDs are required in all other types of shrimp trawl gear, but not yet in skimmer trawls. In Louisiana, 2,248 vessels use skimmer trawl gear, the most of any state. Download the Federal Register Notice in PDF here.

NMFS estimates that more than 28,000 sea turtles are captured each year in skimmer trawl nets used in the U.S. shrimp fleet in the Gulf of Mexico and Southeast coast. Of these, about 1,000 endangered Kemp’s ridleys drown in the nets each year, according to NMFS.

The new shrimp fishery regulations would apply in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and North Carolina — the only states currently using TED-free skimmer-trawl gear. Florida already requires vessels employing this gear to use TEDs. Texas prohibits the gear completely. About 2,435 active vessels have been identified that use skimmer trawl gear (2,248 in Louisiana, 62 in Mississippi, 60 in Alabama, and 65 in North Carolina). The public comment period is open until July 9, 2012.

Louisiana is the only state that prohibits its fishery agents from enforcing federal requirements for use of TEDs in shrimp nets. Governor Bobby Jindal vetoed a bill that would have reversed the 25-year-old law and now Rep. Jeffrey Landry has added an anti-turtle rider to a federal appropriations bill to defund the new skimmer trawl rule.

Currently, skimmer trawls can use tow-time restrictions instead of TEDs. Tow times limit the amount of time shrimpers can keep their trawls in the water, but evidence is mounting that enforcement is near impossible. Even when these restrictions are followed, skimmers drown turtles. The proposed rule would abandon the tow time restrictions and require skimmer trawls, pusher-head trawls and wing nets to use TEDs.

“Closing the deadly loophole in shrimping laws will prevent thousands of sea turtles from needless injury and drowning in shrimp nets,” said Teri Shore of SeaTurtles.org. “It’s a simple and effective way of protecting sea turtles from the skimmer trawl fleet. Most shrimpers have been using TEDs for decades.”

”We’re encouraged that the Fisheries Service has taken this step to protect sea turtles. It acknowledges the harm that skimmer trawls cause and provides a public process for implementing safeguards for sea turtles and other marine wildlife,” said Jaclyn Lopez, staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

All six species of sea turtles in the United States remain at risk of extinction and are protected under the Endangered Species Act. While some populations are increasing, none have reached recovery goals to be delisted. Last year, an unprecedented 3,500 sea turtles turned up drowned or injured in the southeast Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Since only about 5 to 6 percent of dead sea turtles wash up on shore, the actual death toll is much higher.

The proposed new regulations resulted from a lawsuit settlement under the Endangered Species Act between the National Marine Fisheries Service and conservation groups including the Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island Restoration Network (SeaTurtles.org), Sea Turtle Conservancy, and Defenders of Wildlife. The groups were represented by the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic.