The Caribbean Conservation Corporation has worked with a coalition of environmental organizations and federal agency staff for several years to bring about these new regulations. Congressmen from Georgia and Florida, including Senators Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, have vigorously supported this effort.
According to the Biological Opinion (BO) that accompanies the new rules, all leatherback sea turtles and 75% of Gulf loggerhead turtles are too big to escape through existing TEDs. The new rules will require shrimp trawlers to install larger TEDs in all waters (inshore and offshore) of the Atlantic Ocean south of the North Carolina/Virginia border and in all waters of the Gulf west of 81E W. longitude. Barring a successful challenge by the shrimping industry, the rule should take effect in the Atlantic on April 15, 2003, and in the Gulf on August 21, 2003. Shrimp trawlers had been required to use nets with TEDs measuring 35″ x 12″ in the Atlantic and 32″ x 10″ in the Gulf. The new rules require 71″ x 26″ TEDs. Besides the increase in escape hatch size, the rule includes several other gear modifications and restrictions designed to decrease sea turtle mortality and harmful interactions with shrimp nets.
After TEDs were first mandated, NMFS relied on a strategy of temporary shrimp closures and temporary net modification rules to protect leatherback turtles, the so called “leatherback contingency plan.” The plan was implemented when the density of leatherbacks in the water exceeded a defined threshold or when strandings (dead or injured turtles washing ashore) exceeded background levels. These closures and temporary rules, while partially effective, were politically controversial and often issued too late (after turtles began washing onshore) to avoid lethal consequences for leatherbacks.
TEDs were initially designed to allow loggerhead and green turtles to escape; however, for a variety of reasons, the escape hatch design did not accommodate the largest size classes of those species – in particular, large, older males and sexually mature females. The problem was most severe in the Gulf, where the shrimping effort far exceeds that in the Atlantic and where the current required TED openings are even smaller than those required in the Atlantic.
According to the TED rule BO, the shrimp fishery’s impacts are clear. As turtles rest, forage, or swim on or near the bottom, shrimp nets, pulled across the bottom, regularly sweep over them. The turtles are caught in a net and then frantically swim forward trying to outswim the advancing net. Because of the sustained speed of the trawler, the turtles eventually tire and are swept to the back of the net where they encounter the TED. If the turtles can not escape the net or are unable to surface in time, they eventually drown. NMFS scientists calculate that with the smaller TEDs in use, 2,300 leatherbacks and 62,200 loggerheads are killed annually by the U.S. shrimp fishery! With the proposed new rules (larger TEDs) in place, leatherback mortality will be reduced by 97% to 80 per year, while loggerhead mortality will reduce by 94% to 3,900 per year. The rules were applied to all inshore and offshore waters because NMFS scientists concluded that loggerheads “generally occur in all areas and at all times when shrimp trawling activity is likely to occur, and leatherbacks, while not as abundant, forage or migrate offshore during all seasons when shrimp trawling is expected to occur.”
Studies conducted between 1994 and 1999 first documented the failure of TEDs to protect the larger sea turtles. New rules have been delayed for years due a variety of reasons, including politics, resistance by the shrimp industry, and bureaucratic obstacles. The result has been the needless loss of tens of thousands of sea turtles. However, the new rules are proof that a diversity of stakeholders can eventually work together for the long-term benefit of threatened and endangered sea turtles. CCC commends the many NMFS personnel who worked hard to shepherd these regulations through to completion.
TEDs do protect turtles, when properly installed and used. Since 1990, TEDs have been an effective tool in protecting smaller turtles, especially endangered Kemp’s ridleys and juvenile green turtles. It’s not unrealistic to speculate that recent increases in Kemp’s ridley nesting are due, at least in part, to the use of TEDs. It is also possible that the increase in green turtle nesting in Florida is linked in some way to the implementation of TED rules in 1990. With the passage of these new rules, TEDs should help ensure a brighter future for all sea turtles.