Lawsuit launched to protect sea turtles from drowning in shrimp trawls

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Unusually large numbers of turtles washing ashore dead on beaches

SAN FRANCISCO (05/31/2011) -

Conservation groups formally notified the National Marine Fisheries Service today of their intent to sue the agency and three Gulf of Mexico states for failing to protect endangered sea turtles from entanglement and drowning in shrimp trawls. Record numbers of dead sea turtles are turning up on Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama beaches. On average, about 97 sea turtles wash ashore annually in these three states, but already this year 322 dead turtles have been found. Also, despite the likely devastating impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on endangered sea turtles, the Fisheries Service has done nothing to enhance sea turtle protections.

“Sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico that were lucky enough to survive the oil spill are now dying in fishing nets,” said Jacyln Lopez, staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Killing endangered sea turtles is unacceptable and will drive them to extinction. This lawsuit is a clarion call to the Fisheries Service: Sea turtles need emergency action now to save them.”

One year after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, the Gulf Coast needs robust measures to restore its waters, coastal wetlands and local economies. The Gulf environment cannot withstand additional threats to its endangered wildlife.  

“The health of the Gulf and local sea turtles has been impacted by the BP oil spill, and now ‘business as usual’ shrimping operations are jeopardizing critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles,” said Chris Pincetich of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.

Of the 232 sea turtles found in April through May 24 alone, 199 were Kemp’s ridleys. This species breeds and nests entirely within the Gulf of Mexico and was pushed to the brink of extinction in the early 1980s when lingering effects of the massive Ixtoc oil spill combined with a growing shrimp trawl fleet to reduce the entire nesting population to fewer than 400 females. Moreover, loggerhead sea turtles are also stranding, and because of continuing population declines are due to be reclassified from “threatened” to “endangered.”

“To allow endangered sea turtles that survived the biggest environmental disaster this country has ever seen to drown unnecessarily in fishing gear is not only tragic, it’s unacceptable,” said Sierra Weaver, attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “We still don’t fully know the extent of the devastating impacts of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster on sea turtle populations in the Gulf of Mexico. The government needs to take every action now to protect those turtles that remain in Gulf waters today.”

“Sea turtles are dying needlessly in shrimp nets because NMFS and the Gulf states are not enforcing the regulations developed more than 20 years ago to stop these drownings. For numerous reasons, the federal government should be very concerned that Gulf fishermen are not meeting U.S. turtle protection standards,” said David Godfrey, executive director at the Sea Turtle Conservancy.

Federal and state investigators are working to determine causes of the sea turtle strandings. In the notice of intent, the groups assert that the strandings are in large part due to sea turtles drowning in fishing gear. Shrimp trawling has for many decades been a primary threat to sea turtle survival in the Gulf of Mexico; turtles may be more vulnerable to drowning in shrimp nets as a result of their weakened condition from oil poisoning.

The Endangered Species Act requires the Fisheries Service to take actions to conserve endangered species. NMFS acknowledged in August of last year that a huge spike in sea turtle strandings following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill showed shrimp trawling was likely having new types of impacts on turtles.  But despite initiating a new study of the effects of the fishery on sea turtles, NMFS still has not taken any action to stop the ongoing death of turtles in the fishery.   

The groups seek immediate protections for the turtles, including increased enforcement and observer coverage to reduce turtle deaths from shrimp trawls; closure of sensitive areas; and broader requirements for shrimp boats to use turtle-excluder devices to allow turtles to escape drowning in nets.

The notice of intent to sue filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island Restoration Network, Sea Turtle Conservancy and Defenders of Wildlife is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act.

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Links:

Over a year since BP's Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, see how Defenders continues to fight for wildlife like threatened and endangered turtles in the Gulf. 

Contact(s):

Sierra Weaver, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-3274, sweaver@defenders.org
Jaclyn Lopez, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 436-9682 x 305, jlopez@biologicaldiversity.org

Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With more than 1 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit www.defenders.org.

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