Endangered and threatened sea turtles will have a new lease on life when a new federal rule takes effect in the Gulf of Mexico.
Scientists with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for the management of ocean fisheries, expect that annual deaths of endangered leatherback sea turtles will decline 97% and that annual deaths of threatened loggerheads will decrease 94% as a result of the new protections.
NOAA Fisheries issued a rule on Feb. 20, 2003 requiring U.S. shrimp fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico and the South Atlantic to use larger turtle excluder device (TED) openings in their nets. Shrimpers in the South Atlantic were required to start using the larger TEDs April 15. The new rule goes into effect in the Gulf of Mexico Thursday, Aug. 21, six months after the new protection announcement.
TEDs act as escape hatches for sea turtles. Current TEDs are too small to allow large, mature sea turtles – particularly leatherbacks, loggerheads and greens-to escape from shrimp nets. All sea turtles in U.S. waters are listed as either endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA).
Oceana led a coalition of environmental groups during the last two years to obtain stronger protections for sea turtles. Oceana also organized critical support from Congressional allies and leading scientists and spearheaded efforts to generate public debate on this issue. Of the approximately 8,000 letters sent to NOAA Fisheries on the rule during the public comment period, 93% (some 7,700) supported additional protections for sea turtles.
"We think this is win-win for the turtles and fishermen," said Charlotte Gray, marine wildlife scientist for Oceana. "The data is clear: TEDs save sea turtles and many shrimpers, particularly those in Georgia, have used TEDs with larger openings for years with minimal shrimp loss."
NOAA Fisheries’ data for both the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico regions suggest that properly installed and operated TEDs with larger openings lose between zero and 2% of shrimp caught. The federal government’s economic analysis estimates that the cost of retrofitting a net to comply with the new rule is $220 per net.
In addition, financial assistance is available to shrimpers. Earlier this year, the U.S. Congress passed a $35 million economic package for shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic. Economic aid to shrimpers to ensure widespread and proper use of TEDs and other bycatch reduction devices in the fishery is an eligible use of the federal funds. Louisiana has been allocated more than $8.6 million (Texas: more than $5.5 million; Florida: more than $6.6 million) as part of this program.
"We support assistance for shrimpers," noted Gray, "because it ensures that local shrimpers can maintain their livelihood while still protecting the lives of endangered and threatened sea turtles."