Shrimping, not oil, causes hundreds of turtles to strand in the gulf


A loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) swimming, followed by a fish shoal. Southwest of Sardinia coast, Italy. Catamaran Oceana Ranger Mediterranean Expedition, June 2006. (Juan Cuetos)

The numbers are startling: Hundreds of sea turtles have begun washing up into bays and onto beaches along the Gulf of Mexico. Six hundred of the mottled, soup-plate-shaped reptiles came ashore in just four states in 2010, six times the annual average. This year, 563 have been stranded.

Blame the oil that fouled those waters after the BP spill?

No, government scientists say, there is a more mundane local culprit: shrimpers who are ignoring regulations to prevent endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles from becoming ensnared in their nets.

The tale of the turtles illustrates the complexity of establishing cause and effect in assessing the ecological impact of the spill.

More than a dozen e-mails, obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries service by the advocacy group Oceana, provide extensive evidence that shrimping vessels operating in the wake of the oil spill routinely failed to properly install “turtle excluder devices,” aimed at keeping imperiled turtle species out of their gear.


A green sea turtle (Tim Calvert)

The revelations put an uncomfortable spotlight on an industry that has struggled in the face of foreign competition and fishing closures imposed after the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

“This is a serious problem,” said Barbara Schroeder, national sea turtle coordinator at NOAA’s Office of Protected Resources, adding that federal scientists have established a connection between the recent turtle deaths and the shrimp fishery. “And it’s a problem that there’s a solution to.”

Elizabeth Griffin Wilson, Oceana’s senior manager for marine wildlife, questioned why federal authorities have not done more to curb the problem.

“New information is showing that the shrimp fishery is likely to be the cause of death for large numbers of sea turtles,” said Wilson, whose group obtained the documents under the Freedom of Information Act. “Now that we have a feel for the scope of the problem, we’re absolutely shocked that the U.S. government hasn’t taken steps to solve it.”

Ever since the federal government started requiring shrimpers to install the excluder devices in their nets in the early 1990s, they have complained about the safeguard’s economic impact. The device consists of a metal grid that must be angled between 30 and 55 degrees relative to the net’s opening so a turtle can push against it and make its escape. When installed properly, it is 97 percent effective.

David Camardelle, the mayor of Grand Isle, La., and the operator of a 28-foot shrimp boat, said his industry’s operations have no impact on sea turtles at this point but is still reeling from the regulations directed toward them.

“The only turtles that are being destroyed are the turtles in the oil spill,” Camardelle said. “It’s devastating, with the price of fuel and the turtle excluder devices. The environmentalists destroyed our living.”

But the e-mails show that shrimpers across the Gulf of Mexico are routinely failing to place the devices in their nets or installing them improperly. One e-mail describing a series of inspections in Louisiana called “compliance to be poor at best.” At the port of Cameron, one out of nine vessels were found in compliance with the law; in Intracoastal City, La., two out of 17 met federal requirements; and in four other areas where boats were boarded, three out of 29 met the legal test.

“We’re not satisfied with the level of compliance that we’re seeing, and we’re putting our emphasis on improved enforcement and outreach to the shrimp industry,” said Roy Crabtree, administrator for NOAA Fisheries’ Southeast Region. “And we’re going to get this fixed.”

Eighty-five percent of the turtles showing up stranded are Kemp’s ridleys, which divide their time between Mexico and the United States and were listed as an endangered species in 1973. They have begun to rebound in recent years, largely because of efforts to protect their nesting grounds and guard against accidental catches in shrimp nets.

Schroeder said scientists who have performed necropsies on nearly all of the turtles that became stranded last year and a sampling of those that washed up this year found evidence that many had been caught in shrimp nets.

Another challenge to protecting the turtles is that shrimpers operating skimmer trawls are not required to use excluder devices, because they are not supposed to operate longer than 55 to 75 minutes at a time and would be less likely to drown turtles. But these tow times are nearly impossible to enforce, and Crabtree said NOAA is poised to issue a rule by the end of the year requiring the excluder devices for skimmer trawls as well.

Tracy Dore, who operates a skimmer trawl boat with her husband, Andre, in Intercoastal City, said they usually shrimp aboard the Southern Fried for about an hour. She said she was not aware of federal tow limits. “It’s up to them — it’s their preference of how long they skim for,” Dore said of boat operators.

In the end, experts said, scientists sometimes need to look deeper to find the cause of what’s harming marine life in the region, looking at long-term trends as well as the immediate physical evidence.

“The first response very often is, ‘Yeah, it’s the oil spill,’ ” said Nancy Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. “It’s just difficult to tell.”

VIDEO:Sea Turtles in NOAA’s Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read National