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Proposed rule: Shrimpers should use safety devices to protect endangered sea turtles

A sea turtle being released back into the Gulf of Mexico in South Walton County, Florida. The turtle had been injured by fishing tackle. The Obama administration on Thursday issued proposed regulations to protect sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic from injury in U.S. shrimp nets.
A sea turtle being released back into the Gulf of Mexico in South Walton County, Florida. The turtle had been injured by fishing tackle. The Obama administration on Thursday issued proposed regulations to protect sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic from injury in U.S. shrimp nets. AP

In an effort to save thousands of endangered sea turtles, the Obama administration on Thursday issued proposed rules that would require U.S. shrimping boats to insert metal grates into their nets to allow the gentle creatures to escape.

By requiring “Turtle Excluder Devices” in the nets of U.S. shrimpers, some 800 to 2,500 sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean could be saved each year, according to the proposal, which will be published Friday in the Federal Register by the Department of Commerce.

If adopted and enforced, the rule would cut the prevalence of what’s known as “bycatch,” the unintended capture of marine creatures by commercial fishing vessels that are looking for different species.

Currently, less than half of U.S. shrimp boats are required to use the Excluder devices, according to Oceana, an international marine conservation and advocacy group. The new rule would require roughly 5,800 additional boats to do so.

David Veal, executive director of the American Shrimp Processors Association in Biloxi, Mississippi, said his organization shares the public’s concern for sea turtles, but he questions Oceana’s claim that shrimpers kill tens of thousands of turtles each year.

He said contact with recreational fisheries, damage from vessels and environmental problems all cause turtle deaths.

“While we’re sensitive to the sea turtles’ (plight) and we’ll do what we have to do to minimize the impact on the turtle population, we continue to believe that it’s unfair to target us as the sole source of these problems,” Veal said.

Veal said the Excluder devices will cost several hundred dollars to install, depending on their size and quality. But he cautioned that if turtles can get out of the nets, so can shrimp, and questioned whether President-elect Donald Trump’s pro-industry leanings and determination to reduce rules and regulations that affect commerce would keep the proposal from coming “to fruition as an implemented regulation.”

Under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, all sea turtles in U.S. waters are either endangered or threatened. Harassing, injuring or killing them is illegal.

The law defines endangered as “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” Any species “likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future” is considered threatened.

In the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, the Kemp’s ridley, leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles are listed as endangered. In other parts of the Atlantic, the loggerhead and green sea turtles are listed as threatened.

Some 13,000 seafood restaurants and stores in the U.S. have “red listed,” or refused to purchase and sell shrimp and other seafood fare based on environmental concerns about how they were caught or farmed. The effort is led by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.

Robin Pelc, fisheries program manager at the aquarium, said the proposal addresses a “big concern” for the aquarium, which will review the regulation further to see how it may affect their red-listing program.

With the simple solution of requiring shrimp boats in the Southeast to use TEDs (Turtle Excluder Devices), we would dramatically improve the survival and recovery prospects of sea turtle populations, as well as protect the livelihoods of thousands of American shrimp fishermen who lose markets and profits due to the ‘red listing’ of their products.

Lora Snyder, campaign director, Oceana

“With the simple solution of requiring shrimp boats in the Southeast to use TEDs, we would dramatically improve the survival and recovery prospects of sea turtle populations, as well as protect the livelihoods of thousands of American shrimp fishermen who lose markets and profits due to the ‘red listing’ of their products,” said a statement from Lora Snyder, Oceana’s campaign director.

Following a 60-day public comment period, the federal government is expected to publish the final rule next year.

The new proposal would exclude vessels in Biscayne Bay in Miami-Dade County, Florida, which use only wing nets, or butterfly trawls, and operate by “sight fishing at the surface close to the vessel using small, light monofilament nets during the winter months,” the proposal states.

“We anticipate the incidental capture of sea turtles would be a rare event based on the time, location and operational parameters of the (Biscayne Bay) fishery,” the proposal states. “If a sea turtle was incidentally captured, it would be immediately obvious to the operator, and could be quickly released.”

The proposed regulations follow a lawsuit filed by Oceana that accused the government of violating federal law by not investigating the threat to sea turtles posed by shrimp fishing and failing to limit how many sea turtles could be caught and killed.

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