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U. S. to Embargo Mexican Wild Shrimp For Failure to Protect Sea Turtles

The U. S. State Department decided yesterday, March 1, to ban the sale of wild shrimp from Mexico starting April 20 under endangered species regulations that require the shrimp fishery to comply with U. S. turtle protection requirements.

The action resulted when U.S. inspectors found that some Mexican shrimp vessels were not using the required Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) that allow sea turtles to escape from shrimp trawl nets. The violations likely occurred in the West Coast of Mexico and the Sea of Cortez.

“There is no need for sea turtles to die to put shrimp on our tables,” said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of sea turtles and their habitat. “When foreign shrimp boats fail to use TEDs, it is not only a tragedy for sea turtles, which die by the tens of thousands in shrimp nets every year, but it’s unfair to the U.S. fishers who obey the law and must compete in the U.S. marketplace with shrimp imports,”

Mexico has regulations requiring the use of TEDs, but lack of enforcement of their use triggered the shrimp ban. TEDs have been required by all U.S. shrimp trawling vessels since1987 and by all foreign fleets importing shrimp to the USA since 1989.

In November of last year, the Turtle Island Restoration Network in California and family shrimp fishers from Florida filed a federal lawsuit against the U. S. State Department for violations of the Endangered Species Act for allowing shrimp imports that were caught in ways that are deadly to sea turtles available at www.seaturtles.org. The lawsuit claims that the U. S. State Department has failed to properly evaluate and prevent harm to sea turtles from overseas shrimp fleets that sell shrimp to the United States under the ESA’s Turtle-Shrimp Law. It is not clear if this lawsuit triggered the recent embargo.

Background:

Each year on May 1st the U. S. State Department publishes a list of countries certified to import shrimp into the U. S. Countries approved for shrimp imports are required to use technology to reduce harm to sea turtles “comparable” to what is required of US shrimp fishing vessels, including the use of turtle excluder devices or TEDs. Farmed shrimp, and shrimp caught in artisinal fisheries that have less impact on turtles, are exempt from the embargo so long as they have the proper certificates for export.

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 accidental capture in fishing fleets. Each year, tens of thousands of turtles are killed through interactions with shrimp fisheries, the largest known mortality factor for adult turtles.

In shrimp trawl fisheries, large nets are dragged by boats to capture shrimp. When turtles become caught in these nets, they drown if they cannot escape and access the surface to breathe. Sea turtles’ can escape encounters with trawl nets through the installation of turtle excluder devices (“TEDs”). TEDs function by providing an escape hatch for sea turtles and they consist of a solid grate and an opening in the net. When the turtle swims into the grate, it is subsequently directed through an opening in the net which allows the turtle to escape. 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, decreasing bycatch of sharks and rays which can harm fishermen, and have minimal impacts on fishery yields.