Living Lightly: Protecting Sea Turtles One Shrimp at a Time

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Sautéed, buttered, battered, fried. The ways to serve up shrimp are virtually countless. But a recent study suggests that sustainable may no longer be on the menu.

Each year, Americans chow down on more than a billion pounds of these bite-sized crustaceans—the bulk of which hails from Asian and South American farms. But most domestic shrimp are netted in the Gulf of Mexico, where our outsized appetite for the tiny delicacy is causing big problems for endangered sea turtles.

Loggerhead, leatherback, hawksbill, green and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are all protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). They all live in the Gulf, and they’re washing ashore dead in alarming numbers.

In 2011, more than 1,400 sea turtles turned up dead or injured in the Gulf and southeast Atlantic Ocean. Many had shrimp in their stomachs. And since shrimp aren’t a sea turtle staple, researchers believe that the turtles had been trapped in trawling gear and likely drowned.

Shrimp boat inspections further supported the conclusion. And according to official government documents, only some 20 percent of the 112 shrimp boats documented in the Gulf were appropriately outfitted with gear allowing sea turtles to escape trawling nets, which, in most cases, is required to legally fish these waters. What’s worse is that 13 vessels were found with nets that had either blocked escape hatches or had no way for captured turtles to break free.

Last October, Defenders sued the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to take the necessary steps required by the ESA to keep imperiled sea turtles out of harm’s way.

“The Fisheries Service has admitted that increased turtle protections in the shrimp fishery are needed,” says Defenders’ attorney Sierra Weaver. “It’s time to translate that need for action into real protections for these animals.”
Defenders is advocating for increased law enforcement of existing trawling regulations, the closure of sensitive areas to shrimp trawling, and the broader use of escape hatches or other devices to keep turtles from drowning in trawling gear.

While Defenders works to strengthen sea turtle protections, the best way to ensure you’re not accidently ordering a side of endangered species with your scampi is to avoid Gulf shrimp altogether. You could also encourage your friends to do the same.

Saving Something Wild

What do you do to help wildlife?

Kathleen Townsend from Rockford, Ill., says:

“I work with students in an urban area bordered by industrial sites to restore prairie meadow and to plant urban gardens. The result is more home sweet home for species like the great blue heron, garter snakes, gold finches, pollinators such as swallowtail butterflies and a host of insects that buzz. On the human side, the students become ambassadors for all living things and grow in awareness of the need to preserve the land for wildlife.”

What do you do in your daily life to Save Something Wild?
Write to us at editor@defenders.org and your idea and photo could be featured on this page in a future issue.

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