Conservation groups tell NMFS they intend to sue to protect sea turtles from shrimp trawlers

02/19/14 Seán Kinane
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A hawksbill turtle.

photo by Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Several conservation groups told the National Marine Fisheries Service Wednesday they intend to sue because the federal agency has not done enough to protect sea turtles.

The environmental organizations say that harvesting shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico and along the southeastern U.S. Atlantic Ocean leads to tens of thousands of threatened and endangered sea turtles being captured or killed every year.

WMNF interviewed Jaclyn Lopez, a staff attorney with the St. Petersburg office of one of the groups, the Center for Biological Diversity.

“The southeast region of the United States is one of the most prolific for producing shrimp. We have a variety of species of shrimp in out area, and we are really good at catching them. The issue with sea turtles is we also have 5 endangered species of sea turtle in our region. And they interact heavily with our shrimp trawl efforts. So we have, … shrimp trawl efforts is a way of just describing the types of shrimp boats that are fishing off of our near shore and offshore waters, off the coasts of Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. And in these same waters we have species of sea turtles including loggerheads, hawksbill, leatherback sea turtles, green sea turtles, Kemp’s ridley turtles. And they all enjoy our near-shore waters for foraging, some of them are mating off the near shore and some are even nesting on our shores, or on our beaches. And so they enjoy the same waters that our shrimp fishermen do to be producing the shrimp that they do, And the interaction come into play in how the shrimp-fishers catch the shrimp, and this is by dragging nets through the water.

“The nets don’t discriminate, they’ll catch anything that’s in their path, so this includes sea turtles as well as a variety of other species and debris as well. When a sea turtle is submerged in a net, it can’t breathe because sea turtles actually breathe oxygen so they need to come to the surface to breathe every so often. They can’t really be under water for more than 55 or 75 minutes at a time. But if they're caught in a net, they're unable to do that. We experience spikes in strandings, and a stranding is when turtles are discovered unresponsive, unconscious – or maybe even even dead. It can be due to cold stone events, so when we have a wave of cold weather, but it more commonly in our region is due to forced submergence in shrimp trawl nets.”

So your group and some other conservation groups has notified the National Marine Fisheries Service that you intend to sue.

"Right. So this actually goes back several decades. Since 1987 the Fisheries Service has attempted to address the issue with the shrimp trawl nets and sea turtles. This is through the implementation of Turtle excluder devices (TED), which is a contraption that allows a sea turtle to escape the net. And they can be pretty effective in allowing a sea turtle to survive an interaction with a net. But only if they're installed properly, maintained and used in the way they're intended to. So for the last several decades the Fisheries Service has struggled to get both the right gear but then also the right kind of enforcement. Because compliance, as it turns out, with the existing rules is low.

"So we've been through a series of pieces of litigation with the agency to try to get more protective measures for sea turtles, which includes better devices and better enforcement of whatever rules we put in place to make those devices required. Our notice of intent to sue is with respect to the consultation that the agency needs to do -- the analysis that the agency needs to do -- to insure that the measures it's taking are going to be protective of sea turtles. The agency has gone sort of through the cycle where it analyzes the situation, it comes up with a proposal then at the last minute in the 11th hour it withdraws the proposal and says we have to start all over again. So that's what's happened here. Only this time they haven't put forward a new proposal and so they're sort of stuck in this cycle where we have shrimp trawling that continues to go on and we have measures that we know are not sufficient to protect sea turtles. We know that the shrimp fishery in the southeast (US) alone takes tens of thousands of sea turtles every year, kills tens of thousands of sea turtles every year."

And recently you had a settlement with the National Marine Fisheries Service that seemed to have cleared it all up. But they didn't come through on their end of the bargain?

"Right, the cycle that I'm speaking of, the last time this happened was just after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill where we had major contamination of the same waters that are used for shrimp as well as sea turtles and the Fisheries Service had to go back and look at the impacts of both the oil and the dispersants. But also there was again a spike in the strandings of sea turtles in that region that the Service concluded that was attributable to the shrimp trawl industry. So it went back and analyzed the situation and decided that because there was an increase in the effort using a skimmer trawl -- it used to be an otter trawl which is a larger net in deeper water using a turtle excluder device. A skimmer trawl is a shallower net used in shallower water and does not use a turtle excluder device. Instead it uses a tow-time restriction, which means that you pick the net up out of the water every so often and check it for turtles. And in the last several decades there's been sort of a transition to using these skimmer trawl nets, which again don't require TEDs.

"So after Deepwater Horizon the Fisheries Service took a closer look and said what we really need to do because the skimmer trawls with the tow -time exceptions are not sufficiently protective of sea turtles, we need to install turtle excluder devices in skimmer trawls. It sort of sat on that analysis for some time so we did sue to compel a final decision there. The agency settled and said, 'yeah, we're going to propose this rule where we install TEDs in skimmers and we're going to go ahead and complete our analysis.' And they did that in May of 2012 and in November they pulled that rule and said, 'no it's not as effective as we thought it was going to be. Even though maybe it would be more effective, we don't know, we're going to go ahead and pull that rule and stay with the status quo, which we've already concluded is not sufficiently protected.' So that was back in November of 2012.

"Every time we've approached the Fisheries Service they insist that they're moving toward resolution of the issue but it's been now going on more than a year. [This] notice is letting them know that we intend to follow through on this and compel a decision and more protective or better measures for sea turtles."

What would be the advantage of protecting sea turtles? Why should we care?

"We do have five different species of sea turtles (in the southeast U.S.). And there really aren't' that many different species of sea turtles in the world. These are ancient, ancient species that have evolved over millions of years and each one is different and unique. Leatherbacks are huge. They're the size of a small VW. Greens are small and petite. They're the most captivating animals you might see underwater. Hawksbills were once prized for their beautiful shells and the leather of their skin but are now protected because we've decided as a culture, as an American culture that these species are important to our natural heritage and that we're going to do whatever we have to to make sure that they persist. That we're not the cause of their extinction. They've survived millions of years. They've survived some of the most profound changes and we shouldn't be the ones that drive them to extinction.

"Moreover in Florida most of, for example, loggerhead nesting occurs in Florida. About 90% of it occurs in five counties in south Florida. So it's also a major boon for local tourism. What's good for our beaches is good for our sea turtles. So as long as we're taking care of the beaches, whether it's for sea turtles or for humans, it's going to be sort of a mutually beneficial situation for us."

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