Last May, Oceana was encouraged to hear the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) was proposing a new rule that would require all skimmer trawl fishing boats in the Gulf of Mexico to use turtle excluder devices (TEDs) to protect endangered and threatened sea turtles. Unfortunately, NMFS has just backed down on this proposal and has put the lives of thousands of sea turtles at risk.
A turtle excluder device is an opening, or escape hatch, that allows sea turtles to escape trawl nets after they have incidentally been caught in fishing gear. TEDs are already required in some shrimp fishery boats, but this rule would have made the rest of the boats follow the same precautions. When utilized correctly, TEDs can be up to 97 percent effective at saving sea turtles’ lives.
In 2011, however, reviews of compliance reports showed that as few as half of these fishermen were actually using these devices correctly. NMFS had estimated their proposed rule could have saved more than 5,500 sea turtles each year. So what happens to them now?
Skimmer trawls are not required to use TEDs, but are instead supposed to limit the amount of time they spend towing their nets in the water, since sea turtles cannot survive underwater for extended periods of time if captured. Without strict enforcement of a limited tow time policy, however, trawls can be towed for more than an hour – far longer than a turtle can hold its breath. NMFS has admitted that poor compliance with existing tow time requirements has likely resulted in many more turtle deaths than previously estimated. Clearly, requiring skimmer trawls to use the TEDs would be a better way to reduce the number of sea turtles killed each year.
In a statement about the decision, the NMFS Regional Administrator in the southeast region stated that “the conservation benefit does not justify the burden this rule would place on the industry.” While it may not always be easy, protecting endangered and threatened species is required by law, and NMFS should uphold their duty under the Endangered Species Act.
These TEDs are a proven way to reduce the mortality of sea turtles. All trawls that operate in areas and times that sea turtles are present should be required to use them. Limited towing times will not fully protect sea turtles, as some still get trapped in trawl nets where they suffocate or are injured. Without adequate compliance and enforcement of these types of management measures, turtles that have swam the oceans for past millennia might not be here to amaze future generations.
Help spread the word and learn more about these magnificent creatures and the threats they face.