Sea turtles need help. All sea turtles in U.S. waters are on the Endangered Species List as either threatened or endangered. They are often bycatch—unwanted animals caught in nets and other fishing gear. This is one of the most serious threats to the recovery and conservation of sea turtle populations.
But, an escape plan has been hatched. Turtle excluder devices, or TEDs, prevent turtles from becoming entangled and drowning in shrimp fishermen’s nets. TEDs are a set of bars fitted into the neck of a net with an escape hatch. When a sea turtle is caught in a net with a TED, it is stopped against the bars and escapes through the hatch. Shrimp and other critters fishermen want to catch pass through the bars and are collected at the end of the net. TEDs have been used successfully in U.S. shrimp fisheries since the late 1970s, but unfortunately not everyone uses TEDs.
Last month, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed a new rule to protect sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico by closing a TED loophole. In the Gulf of Mexico, certain shrimp fishing vessels that operate in coastal waters in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama have been historically exempt from the requirements to use TEDs on their nets if they limit the time a net is underwater. Unfortunately, new information shows that tow time restrictions are not an effective measure for protecting sea turtles. Furthermore, the tow time rule is difficult to enforce and is largely self-policed.
The new rule would require all inshore shrimp fishing boats use TEDs in their nets. This should reduce incidental bycatch and mortality of sea turtles and aid in their recovery. Providing sea turtles with an escape plan will reduce the number of deaths from accidental drowning in trawls, helping populations recover.
This new rule is extremely contentious, particularly in coastal Louisiana, and for good reason. Shrimper nets aren’t entirely to blame for the perils of Gulf sea turtles. The BP oil disaster negatively impacted Gulf sea turtle populations. There are unknown long-term effects of BP’s disaster on the five species of sea turtles in the Gulf. BP must be held accountable for all impacts of the disaster on marine life. But in the meantime, we must ensure that we’re using all practicable and effective tools to prevent more deaths of endangered and threatened sea turtles in Gulf waters.
Potential resources exist to help shrimp fishermen purchase and install TEDs and receive training on their use. Offering initial installation and training of proper TED operation and maintenance will help the shrimp industry adapt to the new regulations and promote compliance. Ocean Conservancy is working with partners to identify funding for successful implementation.
The Gulf Coast is a place where the culture, economy and wildlife all depend on each other, and the health of the ecosystem. With this new rule, inshore shrimp fleets can maintain their culture and secure their future. Catching shrimp in more sustainable ways not only makes Gulf shrimp appeal to a worldwide environmentally conscious audience, but helps secure a balanced ecosystem and preserve our natural heritage.