In honor of the fourteenth World Turtle Day, created by the American Tortoise Rescue to celebrate and protect turtles and tortoises around the world, we’re taking a close look at one of the biggest threats facing sea turtles today.
Sea turtles have survived for more than 100 million years, outliving dinosaur extinctions and dramatic climate shifts. Mankind, however, is threatening to push sea turtles to the brink of extinction in a multitude of ways, from coastal development to poaching. But one particular threat continues to take an immense toll on sea turtles: industrial fishing.
Even though all six species of sea turtles found in the United States are protected under the Endangered Species Act, bycatch (when fishermen unintentionally catch more than the target fish) from longlines, trawls, gillnets, dredges, and other types of fishing gear continues to kill and injure thousands of sea turtles every year. To mitigate this threat, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) started requiring Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), specialized net openings that allow sea turtles to escape, on nearly all U.S. shrimp trawls in 1987. TEDs are 97 percent effective at preventing sea turtles from being caught in the end of the net, but one state still does not comply with federal law nearly 20 years later.
“Louisiana is responsible for a large majority of U.S. shrimp fishing and is the only state that does not comply with federal regulations,” says Oceana marine scientist Amanda Keledjian. “Continuing to ignore the usefulness of TEDs in trawl fisheries places sea turtle populations at unnecessary risk and hinders their recovery.”
A trawl net is as wide as a football field and is dragged through the water or across the seafloor, capturing almost everything in its path while damaging vulnerable habitat. Louisiana hosts the largest shrimp skimmer trawl fleet, and in 2012, approximately half of the 8,000 recreational shrimp trawlers in the Gulf of Mexico held Louisiana licenses – meaning there are thousands of shrimp trawlers operating without TEDs. The southeast shrimp trawl fishery is one of the dirtiest fishing fleets in the United States, according to “Wasted Catch,” a report Oceana released in March that identified the worst offenders for bycatch.
As a result, Louisiana experienced some of highest number of sea turtle strandings in the northern Gulf of Mexico in 2013, reports NOAA. Sea turtle strandings can occur because of stress, injury, or disease. The federal government estimated that more than 50,000 sea turtles could be killed annually in southeast shrimp trawls.
“It is not just the stranded sea turtles that we should be worried about; it’s the thousands of sea turtles killed by shrimp trawls that drown and sink before ever reaching shore,” says Keledjian. “These dead turtles go unaccounted for and represent a significant problem for conservation planning.”
But, sea turtles aren’t the only ones harmed by this industry. Louisiana’s entire market share is at risk because Louisiana shrimp are “red-listed” on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s seafood guide, encouraging consumers to avoid this product because the harvest practices threaten marine life. Louisiana is the only U.S. state “red-listed” for shrimp.
Oceana is not going to let Louisiana slip under the radar. In April, we called on Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, urging him to reverse state law banning the enforcement of TEDs. Oceana also offered to meet with Jindal to explain the science and clear benefits of using TEDs for developing both sustainable shrimp fishing and protecting sea turtle populations. Jindal has not yet responded. Oceana will continue to press Governor Jindal and state legislators to bring Louisiana into compliance with federal law.
Oceana is also campaigning to reduce bycatch for other species like dusky sharks, dolphins, and other fish, and is working to get TEDs more widely used in the U.S. You can learn more here.