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Biodiversity: Feds eye tougher rules to protect sea turtles

Scoping meeting set along Gulf Coast

A Hawksbill Turtle swims near Honduras. PHOTO VIA THE WIKIPEDIA PROJECT.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Federal officials are taking input to help shape a plan that could reduce the number of sea turtle deaths resulting from shrimp fishing by requiring smaller skimmer trawls to use “excluder” devices that are already common on most shrimp fishing boats.

Some shrimpers, however, such requirements would be too expensive, and that they wouldn’t prevent turtles deaths. Houmatoday.com reported on the release of the plan from a local Gulf perspective.

NOAA has scheduled a series of public scoping meetings in mid-July in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and North Carolina, to take input and identify issues and options for evaluation in a draft Environmental Impact Statement that will assess the environmental impacts of potential regulatory approaches to reduce sea turtle mortality.

Several environmental groups previously said they were prepared to sue the federal government over its failure to protect the endangered animals, and the fisheries service had already been working on a plan to reduce turtle mortality in response to an increased number of stranding.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has documented the increase in sea turtle strandings in the northern Gulf, particularly throughout the Mississippi Sound area. Between January 1, 2011 and June 17, 2011, 379 sea turtle strandings were reported along the Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana coastline. The majority of these strandings, 238 turtles, occurred in Mississippi. NOAA leads the National Stranding Network, and is actively monitoring trends and investigating the cause of the strandings.

Results of the necropsies done to date indicate many of the turtles likely drowned. The exact causes of all of the drownings and any contributing factors have yet to be determined.

“We are encouraged that the Fisheries Service is finally taking steps toward addressing a long-known cause of sea turtle mortality,” said Jacyln Lopez, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that was considering legal action. “The agency needs to move quickly to fix this problem because while they weigh the options, sea turtles continue to drown in the Gulf of Mexico.”

According to conservation biologists, shrimp trawling has historically been a primary threat to sea turtle survival in the Gulf.

All sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico, including Kemp’s ridleys and loggerheads, are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Killing or harming sea turtles is prohibited under the law, although federal officials have created special rules allowing an exception for the shrimp-trawl fishery.

Currently the rules require that most shrimp trawlers use turtle excluder devices that allow turtles to escape fishing gear meant to catch shrimp. Unfortunately, due to poor compliance with this rule and the recent popularity of “skimmer trawls” — which do not use the turtle excluders — there has been an unprecedented increase in sea turtle mortality.

“The Gulf of Mexico is a highly threatened ecosystem that is still reeling from the BP oil spill,” said Lopez. “Efforts to conserve sea turtles and restore the Gulf of Mexico should be a high priority.”

The Center for Biological Diversity will continue to push for increased enforcement and on-boat observers to reduce turtle deaths from shrimp trawls, protections for sensitive areas, and broader requirements for shrimp boats to use gear that reduces turtle deaths.

The National Marine Fisheries Service will hold a series of meetings to get some feedback on the plan.

Currently Turtle Excluder Devices are required in most shrimp fisheries. They are effective at reducing sea turtle drowning when properly installed and maintained. However, one type of gear, shrimp skimmer trawls, is currently allowed to operate without TEDs, and is instead regulated using tow time limits. The focus of this scoping process is to assess options to reduce sea turtle bycatch in the southeastern shrimp fishery.

In other efforts to increase compliance, NOAA’s Fisheries Service gear experts and enforcement personnel have hosted several turtle excluder device workshops throughout the Gulf states to provide information and assistance to fishermen on federal requirements and proper installation of the devices. These experts have conducted numerous courtesy inspections on the docks and at-sea to improve compliance within the Gulf shrimp fishery.

NOAA is also actively working to improve compliance by conducting numerous enforcement patrols throughout the Gulf. “Violations of turtle excluder device requirements are being documented, and warnings and citations issued,” said Alan Risenhoover, acting director of NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Law Enforcement. “These actions, combined with increased visibility on the water and outreach on the docks, seem to be resulting in increased compliance.”

The shrimp industry has also directly reached out to its members to provide information about turtle excluder device compliance. The Southern Shrimp Alliance scheduled more than a dozen meetings to inform its members that turtle excluder device compliance is a serious issue, stressing the importance of proper installation and maintenance.

In responding to the increased number of sea turtle deaths in the Gulf region, NOAA is also assessing potential impacts to sea turtles resulting from the Deepwater Horizon spill. Those injury assessment efforts are ongoing.

More on the National Marine Fisheries Service online here.

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