First the sharks, now this. Sea turtles have been washing up on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in alarming numbers in recent months. Another casualty of the massive BP oil spill? Not directly, although there may well be a connection. It appears that the culprit is at least in part a surreptitious refusal to use the Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) mandated by the feds since 1987.
TEDs are intended to allow all “bycatch” animals bigger than about 10 cm (including sea turtles) to escape from a shrimp trawl while under way by barring them from entering the trawl with a metal grid, and then providing an escape hatch. The problem is that if a turtle gets caught in a trawl it can’t reach the surface for air and ends up drowning. Problem is — enforcement is tricky . . .
TEDs make the trawls leaky so shrimpers lose some of their catch, and since turtles are rarely caught, shrimpers understandably are tempted to sidestep the TED by tying the escape hatches closed while at sea. Last summer, the New York Times reported a spike in dead turtle strandings in the Gulf with suspicious evidence of drowning, which an expert attributed to “fisheries interaction” — probably at the hands of shrimp boats taking advantage of lax enforcement in the general chaos of the Gulf oil spill.
Now tat all the numbers are in it turns out turtle deaths in the Gulf were up last year — big time. According to the Miami Herald:
“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.”
The Herald’s story is based on some legal sleuthing by the advocacy group Oceana, who report:
“The most egregious violations are vessels fishing without TEDs or with the TED escape hatch intentionally blocked. In fact, 17 percent of the vessels documented in the report were guilty of one of these types of violations. ’17 percent of the Gulf shrimp fishing vessels are killing nearly 90 percent of the sea turtles they encounter,’ said Elizabeth Griffin Wilson, senior manager for marine wildlife at Oceana. ‘This is far more sea turtle deaths than the government originally estimated at approximately three percent.’ In a letter today to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), Oceana notified the government that it will sue unless immediate action is taken to remedy these violations and protect sea turtles.”
Oceana has initiated a write-in campaign to spur the federal government toward better enforcement of the existing requirement to use TEDs. The petitionis here.