Our 60-day notice letter was prompted by unprecedented numbers of turtle strandings (a dead or alive sea turtle that washes ashore) in the northern Gulf of Mexico this year from January through May. The notice letter is the fi rst step in bringing a citizen lawsuit for Endangered Species Act (ESA) violations under Sections 7 & 9 of the Act and provides an opportunity for the government to avoid litigation by correcting problems. The situation is so bad that we petitioned for an emergency closure of shrimp trawl fi sheries in the Gulf of Mexico and other actions to conserve protected sea turtles, Gulf sturgeon and smalltooth sawfi sh.
Under the ESA, fi shermen who interact with protected sea turtles must have incidental take permits to fi sh. Each year NMFS allows the shrimp fi shery to “interact” more than 300,000 times with sea turtles accidentally caught in their trawl nets, based on the premise that the vast majority of interactions are not harmful because TEDs allow entrapped turtles to swim free. Recognizing the large size of the shrimp fi shery and that TEDs are not always 100% effective in excluding turtles, NMFS also permits the fi shery to kill as many as 9,410 turtles each year in the course of normal operations. For years STC and others have argued that allowing so many lethal interactions jeopardizes the continued existence of sea turtles, but NMFS maintains turtle populations can withstand this level of mortality. Their determination, however, is based on the proper use of TEDs, adherence to tow time restrictions to prevent turtles from drowning, use of observers, and good enforcement.
A common method of tracking all sources of sea turtle mortality is by counting the number of dead or injured turtles which strand. In the case of the shrimp fi shery, NMFS estimates that strandings represent only 5-6% of actual mortality. On average, 97 turtles strand in the northern Gulf in the fi rst fi ve months of each year. This year strandings increased to uncommonly high levels, especially from mid-March into May. By the end of May, 603 turtles had stranded in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. In the past, large numbers of strandings automatically triggered a closure of the shrimp fi shery, as was done in 1995, but NMFS later changed the system so that it has discretionary control over closures.
Conservative estimates suggest that these stranding numbers represent close to 10,000 dead turtles. Not all deaths are the result of shrimping, but the vast majority of turtles necropsied by government veterinarians showed signs of forced drowning due to fi shing gear. This supports the widespread conclusion that shrimp fi shing and other trawl fi sheries that do not use TEDs are the cause of these deaths in the Gulf of Mexico.
Most stranded turtles were Kemp’s ridleys, the species most severely affected during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. After the blowout in 2010, but before oil reached the shore, hundreds of Kemp’s ridleys stranded as a result of a shrimping frenzy in anticipation of fi shing ground contamination and closure. More than half of these animals appear to have drowned in fi shing gear. One year later, government scientists suggest that the oil and the chemicals used in the clean-up may have increased the vulnerability of Kemp’s ridleys to mortality in fi shing gear.
For the conservation community this situation is déjà vu, an unpleasant return to the time when unregulated shrimp fi shing drowned about 44,000 Kemp’s ridleys and other sea turtles each year. We are alarmed that today’s stranding numbers are higher than strandings in the 1980s before shrimpers were required to use TEDs. So why is the conservation community still fi ghting this battle more than 20 years later?
Not surprisingly, there are no simple answers. Long-term problems in the management of the U.S. shrimp fi shery and non-compliance with the TED regulations are important contributing factors. Changing circumstances also have played a role. Lastly, since the passage of landmark TED regulations and sea turtle protection rules in 1992, the government has not paid suffi cient attention to sea turtle-shrimp fi shery interactions.
Long-term problems include mortality from high density fi shing and the failure to regulate all shrimp fi shing gear which catches turtles. TEDs allow turtles to escape trawl nets, but in areas with intense fi shing, a turtle caught several times within a day can die as a result of physiological changes brought about by multiple forced submergence. Turtles also drown in small trynets (less than 10 feet across) exempted from TED requirements because trynets must be pulled often to sample the catch. In practice, however, many fi shermen leave trynets in the water for several hours to fi sh rather than sample the overall volume of catch.
Skimmer trawls, which are pushed through the water rather than pulled, have replaced shrimp trawls in many areas, and their popularity is growing. Although skimmers catch turtles, these fi shermen are not yet required to use TEDs. At the time the TED regulations were adopted, fi shermen convinced regulators they emptied their smaller skimmer nets every 30-45 minutes so tow time rules in lieu of TEDs would suffi ce to protect sea turtles. As we have learned, skimmer fi shermen routinely tow for more than 90 minutes and do not abide by tow time rules of 45 minutes.
When TED regulations fi rst went into effect in the late 1980s, the Coast Guard played an important part in enforcement. In the 10 years since September 11th, however, the Coast Guard has focused on national security so enforcement of fi shing regulations has been spotty at its very best. In recent years, politicians, particularly in the Northeast, have hampered federal enforcement of fi shery regulations by NMFS. On the state level, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana have not enforced TED rules; Louisiana has gone so far as to pass a law to prevent the use of state funding to enforce TEDs. In 2010 this rule was nearly overturned (Governor Jindal vetoed it) and may be reconsidered this year.
The leadership of NMFS and its parent organization, the Department of Commerce, are failing abysmally in protecting sea turtles from extensive mortality in fi sheries, especially drowning in trawl fi sheries. In the 2008 U.S. Recovery Plan for the Northwest Atlantic Loggerhead Population, scientists estimated U.S. trawls of all types drown more than 30,000 loggerheads each year. In the last 10 years, the Bush and Obama Administrations have been loathe to upset some elected representatives by strengthening TED requirements in the shrimp fi shery and requiring TEDs in other trawl fi sheries. The U.S. shrimp fi shery has faced signifi – cant environmental and fi nancial challenges in recent years, but by failing to adequately regulate the industry, regulators have hurt the very resources, including sea turtles, they are charged to protect. It is a sign of the times that efforts are underway to reduce “burdensome” government regulations for fi shermen and other resource users, to the detriment of all public resources.
In our notice of our intent to sue, STC and the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Turtle Island Restoration Network petitioned for 1) emergency closure of state and federal shrimp trawl fi shing in the Gulf of Mexico until TEDs and observers are required on all commercial shrimp boats; 2) issuance of fi ndings on the primary cause of strandings and any relationship to exposure to oil and dispersants; 3) preparation of an environmental impact statement on the oil spill, strandings and impacts to sea turtles; and 4) other actions needed to protect sea turtles including reduced fi shing effort, increased area closures, and gear conversion.
Despite the fact that NMFS has excellent regulatory authority to limit or eliminate fi shing that is causing excessive sea turtle take, it currently does not have the will to use this authority, making conservation community advocacy and litigation essential to sea turtle protection. With shrimping activity in the Gulf of Mexico highest from July – October, addressing problems in this fi shery will remain a major focus of our efforts this year.