ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.(May 8, 2012) — The National Marine Fisheries Service today proposed new protections  for sea turtles that would require escape hatches in shrimp nets used by boats that operate in the shallow, inshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico and southeast Atlantic Ocean. The new regulations would close a deadly loophole that allows roughly 28,000 endangered and threatened sea turtles to be caught each year by shrimp boats that are currently not required to use “turtle excluder devices,” or TEDs. Last year, more than 3,500 sea turtles turned up dead or injured in the Gulf of Mexico and southeast Atlantic Ocean. The Fisheries Service linked many of those sea turtle strandings to drowning in shrimp fishing nets. However, because strandings represent only 5 percent to 6 percent of the turtles actually killed in shrimp nets, scientists estimate thousands of turtles died in shrimp nets last year.
The proposal is the result of an agreement conservation groups reached with the Fisheries Service to advance protections for imperiled sea turtles. In addition to the proposed rule, the agency agreed to complete its long-overdue analysis of the impacts of shrimp trawling on threatened and endangered marine life in the Gulf of Mexico and southeast Atlantic Ocean.
“We are delighted that the agreement lead to a proposal to help bring these special creatures a step closer to the protection they need,” said Jaclyn Lopez, staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Fisheries Service has a duty to protect sea turtles from drowning in nets; this proposed rule helps it move toward upholding that duty.”
“Finally closing this deadly loophole will give sea turtles another chance to escape drowning in shrimp nets,” said Todd Steiner, executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network, an international marine conservation group with offices in the Gulf and California. “Based on available data, Gulf shrimping is the leading killer of sea turtles in the U.S. and the leading killer of the critically endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtles.”
“There are 28,127 reasons for requiring TEDs in skimmer trawls as soon as possible. According to Fisheries Service estimates, the skimmer fleet caught that many animals each year, and many die,” said Marydele Donnelly, director of international policy at the Sea Turtle Conservancy. “While it shouldn’t have taken our lawsuit to get this proposed rule out, it has. The Fisheries Service now needs to move expeditiously to make it happen.”
The proposed regulation is intended to address sea turtle captures in skimmer trawls — fishing equipment, used primarily in bays and estuaries, that are currently exempt from using TEDs. TEDs prevent turtles from drowning in nets, but limited applicability and lax enforcement are thought to have led to thousands of deaths in 2010 and 2011. Currently, skimmer trawls can use tow-time restrictions instead of TEDs. Tow times limit the amount of time shrimpers can keep their trawls in the water, but evidence is mounting that even when these restrictions are followed, skimmers drown turtles. The proposed rule would abandon the tow time restrictions and require skimmer trawls, pusher-head trawls and wing nets to use TEDs.
“The number of dead turtles we saw in 2010 and 2011 was unprecedented, and today’s settlement will help make sure that type of catastrophe doesn’t happen again,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “We look forward to the Fisheries Service fully complying with the Endangered Species Act and to Gulf waters becoming safer for these remarkable animals.”
Conservation groups reaching the settlement include the Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island Restoration Network, Sea Turtle Conservancy, and Defenders of Wildlife. The groups were represented by the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic.