Sea turtles need protection at the Padre Island National Seashore

The 2006 sea turtle nesting season on the Texas coast is now history and the total number of nests left by the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles has broken all records! Last year 51 nests were found and this year, 101 nests were verified. Sixty-four of them were located at the Padre Island National Seashore where patrols watch for sea turtles every day from April 1 to August 1. Why were twice the number of nests found this year? Common sense tells us that the Kemp’s ridley population is getting bigger because there is less shrimping activity. There is an eight month closure of some state waters, plus high fuel costs and cheap imports of shrimp combined with the need to cut bycatch of red snapper and other fish, making shrimping a risky career for younger fishermen.

We know definitely that the beaches and waters along the Padre Island National Seashore are a key element for the recovery of the Kemp’s ridley which almost slipped into extinction twenty years ago.

Isn’t it time for the state of Texas to recognize that the waters at the Padre Island National Seashore are just as valuable to the Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, recreational fishermen and tourists as they are to the shrimp industry? In spite of the federal regulations for the use of Turtle Excluder Devices to allow sea turtles to escape from shrimp trawls, sea turtles are caught and killed each year in state waters. This happens due to lack of compliance by a few law breaking shrimp fishermen and not enough law enforcement officers to catch them. Yes, there are fewer found dead (stranded) than ten years ago but one female Kemp’s ridley who lays three clutches of eggs for 20 years is so valuable that a dollar amount cannot even be estimated.

Why can’t Texas have a marine reserve, a Kemp’s ridley sanctuary or a marine protected area in state waters by the Padre Island National Seashore ALL YEAR? Isn’t the state proud of the work and financial support of a program that has saved an entire species from extinction?
Alaska has marine parks to protect fish and wildlife resources; Mississippi has a Coastal Preserves Program; South Carolina protects natural resources in its Heritage Trust Program; and 12 other states have similar programs. Why not Texas?

Currently, Texas forbids shrimping in a five nautical mile zone from Corpus Christi to the Mexican border from December 1 to May 15. The state and federal government then stop all shrimping in Texas waters from May 15 for about two months to allow shrimp to grow bigger and more valuable. But after July 15, it’s ‘Katy, bar the door’for the sea turtles. Shrimping starts in all Texas waters with no closed zone or protection from lawbreakers for sea turtles that remain in state waters.

Padre Island National Seashore offers little protection to sea turtles although many people think it does. Sea turtles are protected from the beach to about the second sandbar and that isn’t enough for an endangered sea turtle that has been the focus of a program involving two countries, thousands of people and millions of dollars for almost 30 years!
Sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico were decimated by the shrimp industry for decades and continue to fall victim to them and now recreational fishermen see the red snapper disappearing down the same path. Last year, the Coastal Conservation Association lost patience with the government promise to cut bycatch with the use of Bycatch Reduction Devices. CCA President David Cummins summed up the situation by saying that “It’s time for the shrimpers to accept some responsibility for the current situation.”
Common sense seems to cry out that an effective way to manage populations of over-exploited fish, sea turtles and other marine organisms in the Gulf of Mexico is to protect them from death caused by the shrimping industry. If the state would close its waters (nine nautical miles) to shrimping by the Padre Island National Seashore and declare it a Kemp’s Ridley sanctuary, not only the sea turtles but all other overfished and overexploited marine creatures would again thrive. Texas would take a gigantic step forward in a conservation campaign that has taken a backseat for too many years. Why not Texas? Why not now?
The Texas legislature will meet again in 2007, but must we wait until then and hope someone sponsors a bill to set up an all year marine sanctuary for an endangered sea turtle that is fighting its way back from extinction? Thousands of people have gone to the Padre Island National Seashore to witness the release of tiny Kemp’s ridley hatchlings. The world of media has beaten a path there to tell the story of this tiny turtle to the world. It seems everyone recognizes the incredible accomplishment of the United States and Mexico and their states of Texas and Tamaulipas. Why not Texas? Why not now?