by Beth Lowell
The federal government will soon have an important decision to make that could affect the lives of thousands of sea turtles every year. One of the worst dangers sea turtles currently face is getting caught in fishing nets, often facing injury and death by suffocation as a result. Some of the worst culprits are the trawl nets that are slowly dragged behind boats, trapping many marine species in their wake.
A rule recently proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service, however, would help combat these turtle injuries and deaths. The new proposal would require certain shrimp fishing vessels to use turtle excluder devices (TEDs), which create an opening in trawl nets that allow trapped turtles to escape after they have been caught. TEDs are already required in some of the shrimp fishery boats and this rule would make the rest of the boats follow the same precautions.
Currently, shrimp fishing vessels that use skimmer trawl nets are not required to have TEDs, but they are required to limit the amount of time they may tow their nets along the water. With less time trapped in the net, theoretically, fewer turtles would suffocate. However, that hasn’t necessarily proved to be the case.
The problem with the option of limited tow times is that it is almost impossible to enforce, and even when shorter tow times are followed, many turtles still drown. If used properly, however, TEDs can be up to 97 percent effective at saving turtles’ lives. NMFS estimates the proposed rule could save more than 5,500 sea turtles.
It is estimated that for every pound of shrimp caught by fishermen in the south Atlantic, four and a half pounds of bycatch—other species like sharks, dolphins, turtles and fish, are unintentionally caught in the same nets and then dumped back in the ocean, often suffering injury and death. This number jumps to five and a quarter pounds of bycatch for shrimp vessels in the Gulf of Mexico. TEDs and other bycatch-reducing measures, like better monitoring and placing hard limits on catch and bycatch, are clearly needed to protect vulnerable species and the ocean ecosystems they depend on for survival.
Sea turtles have been swimming in our oceans for millions of years, but they may have finally met their match in fishing nets. All six of the turtle species that swim in United States waters are now listed under the Endangered Species Act, mainly due to human activities like fishing, pollution and habitat destruction. We must act fast and we must act now. Oceana urges NMFS to finalize the rule to require TEDs and help keep turtles in the ocean for another million years.
Beth Lowell is a campaign director at OCEANA, the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans.
Sea turtle photo via Shutterstock