Shrimp Trawling

Commercial shrimp trawling is one of the most significant threats facing sea turtles in U.S. coastal waters. We advocate for more sustainable fishing practices and monitor current fishing regulations to protect sea turtles and minimize the collateral damage to a myriad of other marine life, including whales and dolphins.

The commercial shrimp fishery is the world’s most wasteful fishery, capturing and discarding four to ten pounds of marine life for every pound of shrimp harvested.

Trawlers drag a net through the water behind a boat, targeting whiting, red hake, dogfish, crab, shrimp, and flounder, but inevitably catch almost everything in their path. In addition to sea turtles, marine mammals can become entangled by trawl gear when swimming to forage or migrate. Species that forage on or near the seafloor are at risk of being captured or entangled in netting or tow lines (also called lazy lines). Pilot whales and common dolphins in the Atlantic are particularly susceptible to being caught in bottom trawls. Capture in a bottom trawl could result in drowning from being trapped in the net and held underwater for the duration of the trawl; broken appendages or shell from the weight of the catch on top of them; injury from the drop to the deck when the net is emptied aboard the fishing vessel; stress and exhaustion from capture and release.

The risk of being captured in bottom trawls is so great for sea turtles—many sea turtle species rest and forage on the bottom of the ocean—that special devices known as turtle excluder devices (TEDs) were created to reduce these risks in some trawl fisheries and allow sea turtles and even small cetaceans to escape the net from an opening at the bottom. But limited use and lax enforcement have led to thousands of sea turtle deaths. TEDs are only currently required in trawl fisheries targeting shrimp and summer flounder. Making matters worse, shallow-water shrimp vessels using skimmer trawls are permitted to simply self-enforce time limits on their tows in water instead of using TEDs. Enforcement records have shown that only 35% actually comply with these regulations. There is also mounting evidence from federal fishery observers suggesting that even when these restrictions are followed, skimmers drown turtles.

Turtle Island Restoration Network successfully enforced a provision of the U.S. Endangered Species Act called the turtle-shrimp law in 1999 that requires nations wishing to import their shrimp into the U.S. to use turtle excluder devices (TEDs) to keep endangered sea turtles from drowning. Once it was enforced however, four nations challenged the law at the World Trade Organization (WTO), calling it a violation of free trade—and the WTO ruled in their favor. This was the first case of the WTO, a global international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations, attempting to overturn the environmental laws of a sovereign nation. At first, the Clinton administration was ready to weaken the Endangered Species Act to appease the WTO at the time, but Turtle Island Restoration Network organized opposition from virtually every major environmental organization and the U.S. government finally agreed to appeal. We also joined one of the largest political protests ever seen in Seattle during the WTO Ministerial Conference in November-December 1999, now known as “Battle of Seattle.” We were among hundreds of activists dressed in turtle costumes and we delivered a message that the WTO threatened our democracy when it ruled against the turtle-shrimp provision. At the time, the New York Times declared the sea turtle protesters the “Symbol of Peaceful Protest.”

Our Impact

Enforcing TEDs

Compelled 20 nations to adopt rules that make shrimp nets safer for sea turtles by requiring Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs).

Closing the Fishery

Convinced then-Texas Governor George W. Bush to establish a 100-mile long time-area shrimping closure in South Texas near prime turtle nesting beaches.

Defending the Turtle-Shrimp Law

Successfully defended attempts by the World Trade Organization to undermine the turtle-shrimp law.

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