Kathryn Brooks
© Kathryn Brooks

Sea Turtles

Shrimp Trawling in the Gulf of Mexico

The capture, injury, and death of sea turtles in commercial fishing gear, either on hooks or in nets, is one of the leading threats to sea turtle species. The main culprit in U.S. waters is the Southeast shrimp trawl fishery that operates in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of the Southeast United States.

The Problem

While the use of “turtle excluder devices” (TEDs) has long been required to reduce the drowning of sea turtles in the shrimp fishery, a large spike in turtle deaths in 2010 and 2011 shocked conservationists. Evidence has pointed to low compliance with current requirements, increased use of gear currently exempt from TED requirements, and possible increased risk of drowning caused by the 2010 Gulf oil disaster.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) admitted in August 2010 that it needed to reassess the impact of the shrimp fishery on sea turtles in light of the dramatic increase in strandings that year. But as of March 2012, the agency still had not completed that analysis.

How We’re Helping

In early 2011, 379 more turtle strandings were counted along the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana—a number the government estimates represents only 5 to 6 percent of total deaths. While the NMFS temporarily improved enforcement and announced that it would explore new rules to reduce sea turtle deaths, shrimp fishing continues as usual. The Fisheries Service has repeatedly denied requests from conservation groups for emergency measures to reduce the harm to sea turtles.

In October 2011, Defenders and our partners filed a lawsuit to ensure the agency appropriately addresses the recent spike in turtle deaths and improves protection measures to prevent the U.S. shrimp fishery from jeopardizing the continued existence of any threatened or endangered sea turtles.

Where We Are Today

Defenders’ lawsuit is ongoing. At the same time, we are monitoring the 2012 shrimp season in case emergency action becomes necessary if there is a similar spike in turtle strandings as occurred over the past two years.