State and federal personnel, aided by teams of volunteers and turtle conservation groups around the Gulf of Mexico, have undertaken heroic efforts to protect and save sea turtles impacted by the BP oil spill. Despite the great outpouring of support around the world for the protection of sea turtles in the Gulf, a major new threat to these species looms.
Shrimp fishing off the Louisiana coast was reopened by federal regulators last week (on Monday, August 16). Consequently, the very turtles that have been lucky enough to escape harm from the oil spill face the very real threat of drowning in shrimp nets pulled by fishermen who historically have not complied with federal regulations requiring the use of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) – simple devices placed at the end of trawl nets that allow sea turtles to escape from shrimp nets before being drowned. In addition, according to government enforcement agencies, some shrimpers in eastern Texas are not using TEDs, and skimmer trawls in LA, MS and AL are also drowning turtles.
Since the earliest days of the oil spill, 517 sea turtles have washed ashore dead; many of these animals had no apparent injuries or signs of contact with oil. Necropsies of these animals by federal officials confirmed that interactions with commercial fisheries were the likely cause of death. The use of TEDs on shrimp boats has saved many thousands of sea turtles since being required in all U.S. waters. However, the State of Louisiana and the majority of its commercial shrimpers have refused to use TEDs on their trawls. Meanwhile, federal agencies have been unsuccessful in addressing this problem.
“There is no doubt that shrimp trawls without TEDs will kill sea turtles off the coast of Louisiana,” said Marydele Donnelly, Director of International Policy at the Gainesville-based Sea Turtle Conservancy, the world’s oldest sea turtle research and protection group. “It’s unthinkable that the efforts of so many agencies and individuals to save turtles from the oil spill could be undone because the State of Louisiana and its shrimpers refuse to take simple steps to make their fisheries safer for sea turtles already clinging to life.”
“Coming on the heels of a major cold-stunning event in Florida during January, which killed about 1,000 sea turtles and landed 3,000 more in rehabilitation centers, the BP oil spill has been a one-two punch for sea turtles,” added David Godfrey, the organization’s Executive Director who has just returned from a trip to Louisiana’s coastal fishing communities. “Families whose living depends on shrimping need to get back to work, but this will exact a high toll on large numbers of adult loggerhead turtles that now are inexplicably foraging in an area off the coast of Louisiana where shrimp fishing has just resumed. If they were using TEDs, this would not be a problem.”
The high density of loggerheads in Louisiana waters was discovered by U.S. Army Corps of Engineer trawler crews charged with moving them to prevent capture by dredges building berms along Louisiana’s fragile coast. From July 9 – 23, the trawlers caught 194 turtles. “The capture of so many large loggerhead turtles in this area is unprecedented,” Donnelly said. “And now all of these turtles are going to be in the direct path of shrimpers’ nets.”
In light of new evidence of non-compliance with TED regulations outlined in a recent internal NOAA memo, and to prevent the needless deaths of hundreds of vulnerable breeding age sea turtles, particularly loggerheads that have recently been seen in unprecedented numbers off the Louisiana coast, Sea Turtle Conservancy is calling on the federal government to take all steps necessary to protect sea turtles in the Gulf from capture and death in the Gulf shrimp nets. We also call on BP to help turtles and the fishery by purchasing TEDs for trawl fishermen.