by Meghan Monson

Thousands of endangered sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. Atlantic coast are dying unnecessarily as they become entangled in shrimp nets and ultimately drown. However, turtle excluder devices (TED) could prevent these deaths from happening. The National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) has submitted a rule to the Federal Register proposing that all shrimp nets must use a TED. In order to ensure that the final decision on this rule protects the turtles, public support must be highly visible. A public comment period is currently open on regulations.gov in which you can comment on the NMFS’s proposed rule (http://www.regulations.gov/#!submitComment;D=NOAA-NMFS-2012-0095-0001) and share why you think this initiative is important. Another way to show support is by signing your name to the letter that the Sea Turtle Restoration Project will submit to regulations.gov before the public comment period ends on July 9, 2012 (http://action.seaturtles.org/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=10633). Michael Barnette of the NMFS is also accepting comments concerning this proposed rule (see address below).

The implementation of a rule requiring TEDs will help sea turtles continue their long reign on this planet far into the future; based on fossil records, sea turtles have already been around for over 150 million years. Today, there are seven different species of sea turtles: the Leatherback, Hawksbill, Kemp’s Ridley, Olive Ridley, Green, Flatback, and Loggerhead2. The beaches of Texas host the Loggerhead and occasionally the Kemp’s Ridley and Green species of turtles, providing sands for the turtles to nest in during the nesting season from mid-April to late August3. Sea turtles are prevalent throughout all hospitable Texas beaches.

Sea turtles are interesting and majestic creatures, dazzling us with their graceful movements in the water and their signature beach crawl. Sea turtles also play a very important role in the aquatic and beach ecosystems they are a part of. On average, female sea turtles lay around 100 eggs in beach sands on one occasion, yet usually only one of these eggs survives to adulthood. The eggs that fail to hatch remain in the sand and decompose, providing nutrients for vegetation that prevents damaging erosion of the beach1. Sea turtles have also provided a source of economic growth for the eco-tourism industries in various coastal states, creating jobs and providing livelihoods.

However, every species of sea turtles is endangered, and their risk of extinction is increasing with each passing day. One unnecessary risk to sea turtles is death by drowning in shrimp nets. Last year during shrimp season, approximately 3,585 sea turtles washed ashore dead due to drowning4. Turtle excluder devices (TED) are attached to the nets that shrimp vessels use to make their catch and allow sea turtles and other by-catch to escape if they are trapped. The TED is similar to a filter that allows small things (like shrimp) to pass through, but prevents larger things (like sea turtles) from passing through. When a sea turtle does come into contact with a net attached to a TED, the sea turtle is able to escape the confines of the net. Considering that around 28,000 sea turtles per year are captured in the nets of shrimp vessels, a TED is of upmost importance to turtle death-free commercial shrimping5.

In spite of the invention and implementation of TEDs in shrimp trawls, thousands of sea turtles continue to drown in shrimp nets and wash ashore each year. When the U.S. mandated trawls to be equipped with a TED in 1987, certain types of trawls were not required to make the change, such as the skimmer, pusher-net, and butterfly trawls. With these three trawls, fishermen are permitted to forego the use of the TED and instead, bring their nets to surface more often, every 55 minutes, to check for by-catch6. However, this rule is difficult to enforce. In Texas, the skimmer trawl is illegal to use, but the pusher-net and butterfly trawls are permitted. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department does not manage an observer program that would focus on preventing the death of by-catch in shrimp nets, and Texas fishermen are not required to keep any record of turtle encounters7. Therefore, it is likely that many sea turtles unnecessarily perish off the coast of Texas every year.

The accurate use of the TED can prevent these deaths from occurring in the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts and help to save the endangered Sea Turtle!

Michael Barnette
NMFS, Southeast Regional Office
Southeast Regional Office, Protected Resources Division
263 13th Ave. South
St. Petersburg, FL 33701-5505

1 http://www.seaturtleinc.org/turtles.html
2 Karl, Stephen H ; Brian W. Bowen (1999). “Evolutionary Significant Units versus Geopolitical
Taxonomy: Molecular Systematics of an Edangered Sea Turtle (genus Chelonia)”. Conservation Biology (Blackwell Synergy) 13 (5): 990-999
3 http://www.seaturtleinc.org/turtles.html
4 http://action.seaturtles.org/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=10633
5 http://action.seaturtles.org/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=10633
6 http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=NOAA-NMFS-2012-0095-0001
7 http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/pdfs/strategy/tx_trawl_gear.pdf

Meghan Monson is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin studying Anthropology and Spanish, with interests in sustainability and Environmental Sociology. I am interning with Environment Texas in order to pursue a career in environmental advocacy.