WASHINGTON — Shrimp boats that fish in the Gulf of Mexico without the required turtle-excluder devices are killing more sea turtles than is allowed under the Endangered Species Act, the advocacy group Oceana said in a report Tuesday.
The organization based its new estimate of leatherback and loggerhead turtle deaths on federal fishery regulators' emails about periodic checks on the use of the turtle-excluder devices. The group obtained the emails under the Freedom of Information Act. If the memos capture a representative sample of the fleet, the group estimates that 4,874 loggerheads and 108 leatherbacks were killed in the nets last year.
"There are other types of fishing gear that can be dangerous to sea turtles, and there are other problems like oil spills and plastic pollution, but we think the greatest threat now is the shrimp trawl fishery," said Elizabeth Griffin Wilson, senior manager for marine wildlife at Oceana.
Shrimp boats that trawl on the seafloor have been required to have turtle-excluder devices for nearly 20 years. But Oceana said the problem of sea turtle deaths remained unsolved because of noncompliance, poor enforcement and exemption from the rule for some types of trawlers.
The group said the true number of dead turtles was probably higher because it didn't include turtles that were killed because the devices were set at the wrong angles, deaths from trawlers that weren't required to have the devices or any trawling in the Atlantic Ocean.
Since January, more than 423 injured or dead sea turtles have washed up in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last week. The number is consistent with last year, during the BP oil spill, but higher than in previous years.
"It's clearly a problem because there are way too many dead turtles," said C. David Veal, the executive director of the American Shrimp Processors Association in Biloxi, Miss.
The fishing industry blames the oil spill, but sampling by federal officials shows compliance with turtle-excluder device rules is inadequate, Veal said.
"Over time, apparently, we've gotten a little lax at that because the numbers show there's a problem," he said. Still, he said, the data available so far don't make it clear that the shrimp industry is the major culprit.
Meanwhile, the industry has moved to greater use of skimmer trawls, which don't require turtle-excluder devices, he said. Skimmer trawls are required to limit their tow time, but Oceana said there was evidence of violations.
Dean Blanchard, who runs a shrimp business in Grand Isle, La., with 1,400 trawlers — skimmers and bottom trawlers — said the oil spill, not the shrimp industry, was to blame for turtle deaths.
"It's from the same problem that they had last year," he said. The oil spill also killed porpoises and pelicans, he said. "Are the trawlers killing the pelicans?"
What's more, other fisheries, wildlife and cruise ships also kill sea turtles, but only the shrimp industry gets blamed, Blanchard said.
A turtle-excluder device is a grid of bars fitted in the neck of a shrimp trawl. Shrimp pass through the bars, but when sea turtles hit the bars they're ejected through an opening. While the device is open, however, some of the catch can be lost.
Oceana examined memos from federal fisheries officials who checked on the use of the devices in Mayport and Fort Myers, Fla., Biloxi, Miss., and ports in Texas and Louisiana, plus state inspections in Georgia. The memos showed that of 76 vessels checked in the Gulf of Mexico, 17 percent had no turtle-excluder devices or the devices were blocked intentionally.
In Mississippi and Florida, none of the 22 vessels checked was in compliance with the rule. In Georgia, 47 percent of 30 vessels observed last year were in compliance.
Oceana announced that it plans to sue the government over its management of the shrimp trawl industry. Other environmental groups recently have done the same.
NOAA spokeswoman Monica Allen said the agency was reviewing Oceana's information, but couldn't comment because of the litigation.
The National Marine Fisheries Service recently announced that it's considering changes in how it regulates the industry from North Carolina to Texas. Possible changes include requiring turtle-excluder devices on all types of trawlers and closing some areas to shrimping.
NOAA announced last week that it put extra personnel on docks in the Gulf to inspect turtle-excluder devices and help shrimpers comply with the rules. It also planned to increase enforcement patrols on the water.
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