Federal Scientists Point to Shrimpers in Many Turtle Deaths

Emails reveal that shrimping vessels operating in the wake of the oil spill routinely failed to properly install “turtle excluder devices.”

05-26-2011 // Miles Grant
Baby Sea Turtle rescue

Six times the annual average of sea turtles were stranded in the Gulf of Mexico last year and hundreds more have washed up this year. While the Gulf oil disaster was to blame for many of the deaths, just-released government documents obtained by the group Oceana are shedding new light on another cause:

More than a dozen e-mails, obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries service by the advocacy group Oceana, provide extensive evidence that shrimping vessels operating in the wake of the oil spill routinely failed to properly install “turtle excluder devices,” aimed at keeping imperiled turtle species out of their gear. [...]

But the e-mails show that shrimpers across the Gulf of Mexico are routinely failing to place the devices in their nets or installing them improperly. One e-mail describing a series of inspections in Louisiana called “compliance to be poor at best.” At the port of Cameron, one out of nine vessels were found in compliance with the law; in Intracoastal City, La., two out of 17 met federal requirements; and in four other areas where boats were boarded, three out of 29 met the legal test.

The turtle excluder devices are metal grids that allow trapped turtles to push their way out. Shrimpers don't like them because the when the turtles crawl out, some of the catch can be lost.

The National Wildlife Federation rated the status of Gulf sea turtles as "poor" in last month's report, The Long Road to Recovery.

"The National Wildlife Federation has spent decades fighting to make sure endangered sea turtles are protected by excluders. It's frustrating to hear that not only are shrimpers using them at low rates, there's insufficient enforcement by government officials," said Dr. Doug Inkley, the National Wildlife Federation's senior scientist. "The Gulf oil disaster put incredible stress on the Gulf Coast's communities and ecosystems, but that's no excuse for not following the law and the failure to do so is putting sea turtles at even greater risk."

The National Wildlife Federation worked closely with Gulf fishermen throughout the Gulf oil disaster to monitor impacts. One boat captain helped us alert the public to BP's 'burn boxes' that killed untold numbers of sea creatures. NWF supports Gulf oil disaster response legislation that would dedicate fines and penalties to Gulf states for comprehensive ecological and economic recovery, including coastal wetlands restoration and assistance to commercial fishermen.

"It's clear the systems designed to allow fishing and sea turtles to coexist are out of balance right now and we need to work together to find solutions," said David Muth, state director of the National Wildlife Federation's Coastal Louisiana program. "A healthy commercial and recreational fishing industry is vital to the long-term health and well being of the Gulf and can be harmonious with thriving fisheries and a broader restoration agenda."

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