Posted by Rick Civelli | 05.10.2012 | Turtle Talk

Closing the loophole on sea turtle bycatch

While legislation in the 1980s requiring mandatory use of turtle excluder devices (TEDs) went a long way to protect sea turtle populations, a loophole was established that has continued to inhibit conservation efforts. A current proposal from the National Marine Fisheries Service seeks to correct this loophole, ensuring the Gulf and Atlantic waters will be a little safer for marine species.

While TEDs became mandatory on large trawling vessels, primarily those used in the shrimp industry, smaller boats with different equipment were excluded. Instead of using the excluder devices they were required to shorten the nets soak time. From April 1 through October 31 the tow time restriction is 55 minutes and from November 1 through March 31 it extends to 75 minutes. In theory, this shortened soak time will allow turtles to be removed in enough time for them to recover.

However, trends in the Gulf seem to indicate the contrary. The last two years have seen over 1,100 dead turtles wash up in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama (644 in 2010 and 525 in 2011). Those specimens that were not too degraded were necropsied. Results indicated that the most likely cause of death was drowning, most likely in shrimp nets. These numbers only represent the turtles that were collected; there are undoubtedly many, many more that decomposed at sea and were never accounted for.

Gulf shrimping plays a significant role in sea turtle mortality. Estimates from NOAA indicate that 28,000 turtles are caught in nets annually. The increased usage of TEDs can help ameliorate the fisheries related mortality of sea turtles. The newly proposed regulation would only affect 2,400 vessels, 65 of them in North Carolina water. Florida already has mandatory TED usage on all the different shrimp fishing fleet – skimmer trawls, pusher-head trawls, and wing nets. It is slated to go into effective at the beginning of the 2013 shrimping season, with a target date not later than March 15, 2013.

The mandatory TED proposal is now available for viewing in the Public Record. Hearing dates are slated for Morehead City, NC; Larose, LA; Belle Chase, LA; Biloxi, MS; and Bayou La Batre, AL. Please let the government know about your support for this proposal by either attending a hearing or voicing your approval via email or phone during public comment acceptance.