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Supreme Court Refuses to Consider Fixing Loophole in Sea Turtle Law

Environmentalists to Explore Legislative Fixes to Protect Species and U.S. Shrimpers
Forest Knolls, CA – Today, the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to consider a challenge by environmentalists to the State Department’s lax rules pertaining to the import of shrimp caught by foreign fleets. The current rules, environmentalists argue, do not adequately protect endangered sea turtles nor level the playing field for the U.S. shrimp fishing fleet. Environmentalists are now developing a legislative strategy to fix this loophole and are considering a consumer boycott on all foreign shrimp.

“After eleven years of fighting the State Department to get this law properly implemented, I am very disappointed that this loophole remains,” said Todd Steiner, Director of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, the lead plaintiff in the case. “With legal avenues exhausted, we are going to figure out a way to fix this loophole legislatively – for the turtles and the U.S. shrimpers.”

The intent of the Turtle-Shrimp Law was to globally protect endangered sea turtles by encouraging other nations to adopt similar laws in order to level the playing field for U.S. shrimpers. Nations that refused to adopt such laws could not sell their shrimp in the U.S. However, the State Department put in place lax rules that allow shrimp to enter the U.S. from countries, such as Brazil and Australia, that do not have laws requiring the national use of Turtle Excluder Devices.

“Despite this set back on this one loophole in the law, our earlier legal victory compelled the State Department to apply the Turtle-Shrimp law internationally, rather than to a select few nations in the Caribbean and Atlantic as State had previously done,” added Steiner.

“The State Department’s interpretation of the law fails to protect sea turtles or U.S. shrimpers,” said Peter Fugazzotto, Communications Director of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. “With the flood of aquaculture shrimp in the U.S. markets, and now this preferential treatment of foreign shrimp fleets, the U.S. shrimp industry may be on its last legs. It’s not fair that American shrimpers get punished for doing their share in protecting global resources.”

Environmentalists are currently developing a legislative fix to this loophole in the Turtle-Shrimp law that will both protect endangered sea turtles and U.S. shrimpers, and not allow the State Department any latitude in misinterpreting the law. Environmentalists are also considering a consumer boycott of all foreign shrimp – both wild caught and aquaculture.

Background

All seven species of sea turtles have been listed as endangered, threatened or vulnerable. Without the use of protective technology, it is estimated that 150,000 turtles drown in shrimp nets globally every year. A Turtle Excluder Device (TED) attached to a shrimp net prevents this needless drowning by more than 97%. This device only costs between $50 and $300. All U.S. shrimpers are required to use TEDs.

A 1989 provision of the U.S. Endangered Species Act (the Turtle Shrimp Law) requires all countries that wish to export wild shrimp into the U.S. to use Turtle Excluder Devices or methods that achieve comparable levels of protection. In 1995, a legal victory by a coalition of environmental organizations compelled the US to require that nations establish policies related to the use of Turtle Excluder Devices (a nation-by-nation standard). As a result of this ruling, 16 nations improved their fishing policies and practices. This law has proven the most effective international mechanism for preventing the drowning of sea turtles by shrimp nets.

In 1996, four nations challenged the Turtle Shrimp Law claiming that it violated the rules of the World Trade Organization. In 1998, the State Department weakened the guidelines relating to the Turtle Shrimp Law, to allow shrimp to be imported on a “shipment-by-shipment” basis.

Environmentalists point out the flaws of this importation basis including the potential for the illegal laundering of shrimp into the country, no economic incentive for nations to continue strong environmental policies, and a questionable ecological benefit to sea turtle populations.

In 1998, the environmentalists challenged the weaker standards at the U.S. Court of International Trade, which failed to provide any injunctive relief, even though it found the State Department in violation of the law. The ruling was challenged at the U.S. Federal Court of Appeals, and, in 2002, the court upheld the weaker standards. Today, the Supreme Court refused to consider the environmentalists’ challenge.