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Going Green: No exclusions
Gulf shrimp fishery, feds under fire for increasing sea turtle deaths
By James Wright
August 03, 2011
Think like a Gulf shrimp fisherman: You’ve endured one extreme hardship after another — battles with a surge of imports that sell for lower prices than your product, destructive hurricanes and a catastrophic oil spill — and, if you’re still willing to steam out to sea, you might not earn enough money to offset your boat payments and fuel costs.
It’s a tough way to earn a living, with perpetual temptation to cut corners. Doing so, however, invites scrutiny and further woes. Such is the current situation.
Gulf shrimpers have, for more than 20 years, been required to use turtle excluder devices (TEDs) on trawl nets to allow endangered sea turtles to escape should the creatures become ensnared. By and large, they have complied with this rule, even though nets equipped with TEDs can be less proficient at catching shrimp. Using a net without the contraption, or an outdated one, could make the difference between a good day at sea and a bad one.
TED compliance among Gulf shrimpers has recently slipped, admits John Williams, executive director of the Southern Shrimp Alliance (SSA), a group that represents shrimp fishermen from eight Southern states from Texas to the Carolinas. While he doesn’t know the current compliance rate, he’s been informed of increasing violations that indicate it’s fallen below the 97 percent mark that SSA has trumpeted in the past. Economics, he says, could be a factor.
Williams is urging all shrimp fishermen to abide by strict TED regulations or face the possibility that their fishery could be shut down. On May 31, four environmental groups notified the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service of their intent to sue within 60 days in order to cease shrimp trawling in the Gulf unless the agency acts to reverse the trend of increasing turtle strandings — defined as animals that are beached or struggling in shallow water (see chart, p. 50). Oceana filed suit in July, claiming that 17 percent of the Gulf shrimp fleet is killing 90 percent of the sea turtles it encounters.
While the groups implicate the shrimp fleet, Williams says there are other potential reasons worth considering before assigning blame.
“We all operate under an exception of the [Endangered Species Act]. If we don’t abide we could be shut down. We have to make sure we’re not the cause,” says Williams, before adding, “We’re not responsible for these escalated strandings.”
Due to conservation efforts like TEDs, Gulf sea turtle populations, including Kemp’s Ridleys, loggerheads and leatherbacks, have increased, says Thor Lassen, president of Ocean Trust, an ocean conservation foundation in Reston, Va. Lassen, who has promoted and led sea turtle conservation efforts for years, has not been requested to conduct research that may link fishing effort with increased turtle deaths. But he says there are many angles to explore before concluding that increased turtle mortalities are due to shrimp fishing.
“It might not be that [fishermen] weren’t using them; an improper angle, maybe? You have to compare what the violations were,” says Lassen.
“If there’s a spike in strandings, we need to understand why. And it’s hard to say why,” adds Lassen. “There is in fact an increase in population of turtles, like the Kemp’s Ridley. It’s nesting season, and there are increasing amounts of turtle nests, an indication of increasing population. I have heard in general that [the strandings] occurred during the same time the oil spill was occurring. Is there a relationship? I don’t know but it’s a valid question. You have to compare fishing seasons and look at fishing effort and the level of activity at that time.”
That’s where Williams says the dots just don’t connect. He and other fishermen contend that there was no fishing in the Mississippi Sound area at the time of the spike in strandings, so blaming fishermen sounds like the easy explanation.
“It’s so frustrating,” he says. “Every time a turtle washes ashore we get blamed. We do have a compliance problem, but it’s a completely separate issue. We need to get into compliance and force them to look at other reasons. It certainly wasn’t us.”
The Center for Biological Diversity, the Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN), Sea Turtle Conservancy and Defenders of Wildlife — the four groups that filed suit against NOAA Fisheries to halt shrimp fishing — are concerned about a staggering increase in Mississippi Sound turtle strandings in April compared to Aprils in previous years.
On average, about 97 sea turtle strandings occur in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama each year. That number vaulted to 320 this year, according to San Francisco-based TIRN.
“The health of the Gulf and local sea turtles has been impacted by the BP oil spill, and now ‘business as usual’ shrimping operations are jeopardizing critically endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles,” says Chris Pincetich of Sea Turtle Restoration Project, a part of TIRN. The groups don’t want to wait for NOAA to conduct a lengthy review process when they feel shutting down shrimp fishing now can save the turtles.
Kemp’s Ridley turtles breed and nest only in the Gulf. Necropsies on dead turtles have shown the animals are dying mostly from drowning, which could mean that they were trapped in a net and couldn’t surface to get air. Some had shrimp in their throats, and turtles don’t normally eat shrimp. This, according to the environmental groups, points to “forced submergence in shrimp trawls.”
Federal regulations require all shrimp trawlers to be outfitted with a TED. Even inshore skimmer boats, which are much smaller and adhere to tow-time limits (45 minutes) to prevent turtle drownings, could be forced to employ some type of bycatch reduction device in order to prevent litigation; such solutions were discussed at several NOAA-led public meetings in July.
Aside from different standards for different types of fishing gear, Williams says both NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Coast Guard can conduct gear inspections and they’re not necessarily comparing apples to apples.
“Coast Guard folks are not adequately trained to look at compliance issues. And there’s lots of turnover,” he says. “You could have a Coast Guard crew board you, look at your TEDs, leave and then NOAA Law Enforcement comes along and finds violations.”
The fear of the fishery being shut down for failure to use TEDs is real and a precedent for that has been set. Last year the United States placed an import ban on wild shrimp from Mexico (the sixth-largest supplier of shrimp to the U.S. market in 2009) because fishermen there were cited for improperly using their TEDs in the Gulf of Mexico and Sea of Cortez.
The U.S. ban was lifted in October, six months after it was implemented. Several months later, Seattle-based Sustainable Fisheries Partnership started a “buy legal” initiative aimed at seafood buyers, claiming that Mexico’s shrimp trawl fishery still wasn’t fully compliant. This fact is not lost on domestic fishermen.
“The State Department can’t enforce a rule for a country their own country isn’t abiding by,” says Williams.
Violating the Lacey Act, which prohibits the possession and trade in seafood caught illegally, is not in shrimp fishermen’s interests, so they will do whatever is necessary to stay compliant with the law. For Gulf fishermen, closing the shrimp fishery could be too high of a hurdle.
“This is not the last straw. We’ll be here as long as we possibly can,” says Williams. “We will approach this in a reasonable and logical manner and do whatever is necessary to survive.” Email Associate Editor James Wright at email@example.com