By Marydele DonnellyAs this issue of the Velador goes to press, our staff is preparing to attend the 34th International Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation in New Orleans. This annual meeting has been held in various locales in the United States, as well as overseas, but this year marks the first time our international community has come together in Louisiana, a state that is infamous for its sea turtle conservation problems.
With extensive fishing grounds, Louisiana is the largest U.S. producer of shrimp. Louisiana waters also provide important feeding, developmental and migratory habitat for loggerheads, Kemp’s ridleys and green turtles, all of which are listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The drowning of sea turtles in U.S. shrimp trawls was first identified as a major problem in the 1970s. In the mid-1980s the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) finally adopted comprehensive turtle excluder device (TED) requirements and other measures to ensure sea turtles could escape drowning in shrimp nets, but implementation was held up for several years due to Congressional delays and multiple legal challenges, including several brought by the State of Louisiana. In 1987 the Louisiana legislature enacted Revised Statutes 56:57.2 to prohibit game wardens from the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries from enforcing federal TED regulations, citing “there is little information to conclude that shrimping is a significant causal factor in sea turtle mortality.”
Shortly after, federal regulations finally went into effect in all state and federal waters from the Virginia-North Carolina state line to the border of Texas and Mexico. Nevertheless, unlike all other shrimping states in the region, Louisiana has avoided having to enforce these regulations by refusing to enter into a Joint Enforcement Agreement with NMFS allowing federal enforcement agents to work in state waters. In early 2010, NMFS informed Louisiana that it would not be receiving its annual federal allotment of $400,000 to enforce fisheries regulations for all species.
Later that year, the state legislature, working with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, recognized the need to advance sustainability programs for saltwater and freshwater fish resources and to repeal the prohibition on state enforcement of federal TED laws. With bi-partisan support, the legislature passed H.B. 1334. Unfortunately, on June 29, 2010 Governor Bobby Jindal vetoed the bill out of concern that “fishing communities and industry” did not have time to give input.
A huge body of evidence proves the value of TEDs in saving sea turtles from drowning and in improving fishing efficiency for shrimpers. TEDs eject debris such as tires from nets, reduce the capture of unwanted fin fish and therefore lower the time needed to sort through the catch on deck, and reduce fuel consumption. The result is cleaner shrimp catches with less disruption of the marine ecosystem. TEDs in U.S. waters have been credited with aiding the increase of the endangered Kemp’s ridley nesting populations in Mexico and the United States and have had a positive impact on all other species of sea turtles.
STC believes that conservationists now have an excellent opportunity to significantly change TED regulations in Louisiana. Lack of TED enforcement is a major problem, but attention to what is happening and the growing interest in sustainable fisheries should benefit sea turtles. In particular, sustainable seafood labeling is new for shrimp marketing and could be very helpful in leveraging TED enforcement. New tools create opportunities: in 2013 the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch put all wild-caught Louisiana shrimp and any Gulf shrimp caught with skimmer trawls on its red “Avoid” list because of critical conservation threats to sea turtles. As 1,000 sea turtle biologists and conservationists descend on New Orleans, we look forward to meeting with fishermen, working with the media and reaching out to the Governor’s Office and Department of Natural Resources in an effort to enhance sea turtle conservation.