Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the United States, but the vast majority of it is imported. Imported shrimp is more likely to have been treated by chemicals and antibiotics, or even to have been peeled by slaves. Recent reports about these issues leave many consumers looking for a more responsible alternative, like U.S. domestic shrimp. Domestic shrimp production is indeed free of many of the health and human rights concerns associated with shrimp imports, but some sustainability issues remain. Fortunately, these issues have a solution.
It is estimated that 50,000 endangered and threatened sea turtles may be killed every year in Southeast U.S. shrimp trawls. In 2013, the bycatch also included 242 million pounds of discarded seafood and ocean wildlife from the Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawl industry. That’s 62 percent of its total catch. Had the discarded commercially-fished species been of marketable size, the haul would have been worth as much as $350 million.
Such figures could be greatly reduced with one simple solution: Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), as detailed in a report by Oceana released today, calling for TEDs to be required in all shrimp trawls in the Southeast United States. First developed by shrimp fishermen, these metal grates inserted into nets allow non-target animals and fish, or bycatch, to escape while letting shrimp slip through the bars and into the trawl. A new and improved TED has smaller bar spacing – reduced from 4 to 3 inches – that could decrease bycatch by an additional 25 percent.
Even though TEDs are 97 percent effective at allowing captured sea turtles to escape and provide a number of benefits to the Southeast shrimp trawl fishery, about 2,400 skimmer trawls in the region are currently exempt. Requiring TEDs on these exempted skimmer trawls would be a big step towards making all U.S. wild-caught shrimp a good seafood choice. This requirement would also remove them from red-lists in seafood buying guides and consequently open over 13,000 retail markets in the U.S. to their products.
Other fishermen would feel the positive effects too, when pressure is relieved from important commercial and recreational fisheries, as almost 90 million of the 242 million pounds of fish discarded by Gulf shrimp trawls are made up of species valuable to other fishermen. Red snapper, Atlantic croaker and red drum are such species that can grow to more abundant levels and be available to fishermen and customers.
Requiring TEDs in all Southeast shrimp trawls would help struggling sea turtle populations recover. Kemp’s ridley, leatherback, loggerhead, green and hawksbill sea turtles all make their way into shrimp trawl nets, and all are listed as either endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Government estimates indicate that Kemp’s ridleys, the smallest and most vulnerable, could account for 82 percent of sea turtle bycatch in the Southeast. But these benefits aren’t limited to these turtle populations. Sea turtle tourism attracts over 500,000 visitors to the coastal Southeast annually, a significant and growing contribution to the region’s travel economy.
The Obama administration has the opportunity to make sea turtle conservation part of its legacy and usher in these benefits by directing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to require all exempted shrimp trawls to use smaller-spaced TEDs and require all trawls already using TEDs to transition to the smaller-spaced TEDs. This solution has a lot of winners: sea turtles, tourists, tourist economies, commercial and recreational fishermen, southeast shrimpers and seafood consumers who can finally say, without hesitation, “I’ll have the U.S. wild-caught shrimp.”