Sea turtles have existed for at least 110 million years. They survived the cataclysm that wiped out dinosaurs. They cope with nonstop waves of unnatural threats to their mellow lives, including poachers, oil spills, plastic pollution, coastal development, and global warming. But sea turtles have never faced an adversary the likes of Washington bureaucracy.
Life is not getting easier for five of the seven worldwide species that live in Florida waters, conservationists say.
“A shrimp cocktail is not worth the life of a sea turtle,” Jacki Lopez, Florida’s director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an email.
On Monday, Lopez (at left), an ardent advocate for endangered species in Florida, and the Center for Biological Diversity joined the Turtle Island Restoration Network, Defenders of Wildlife and Earthjustice to file a notice of intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service for weakening rules that safeguard sea turtles from shrimp trawl nets.
The new federal rule exempts so-called “turtle excluder devices” (TEDs) on vessels smaller than 40 feet.
“There is no excuse to let sea turtles suffer an excruciating death, drowning in shrimp nets when there is a simple device to let them escape,” said Joanie Steinhaus, Turtle Island Restoration Network’s Gulf Program director.
According to the notice, the NMFS is reneging on an earlier proposal that curtailed TEDs in shrimp trawl fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic. The new rule exempts the devices on vessels smaller than 40 feet.
The decision, the groups claim, violates the Endangered Species Act that was enacted in 1973 to protect endangered and threatened fish, wildlife, plants, and their natural habitats.
“We have to do more to protect these extraordinary creatures before it’s too late,” Lopez said. “Devices to exclude sea turtles from shrimp nets just make sense.”
The conservation groups said they fear weaker rules involving shrimp trawl nets will result in an estimated 1,300 sea turtle deaths from smaller vessels each year.
For decades, TEDs have been required for large segments of the U.S. shrimp fleet. Before measures to reduce bycatch were enacted, incidental sea turtle takes surpassed 300,000 annually, including roughly 70,000 deaths, according to a Duke University study.
“The Fisheries Service’s new rule … exacerbates reckless killings of some of the most endangered sea turtles on Earth,” Jane Davenport, a senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, said in an email statement. “We need to implement the proven technology of turtle excluder devices for all vessels and enable shrimp trawling to coexist with these amazing animals before it’s too late.”
The legal notice gives NMFS 60 days to address the alleged violations before the groups file a lawsuit. The new rule is scheduled to take effect in April. Florida’s sea turtle nesting season begins in May.
“These new regulations are irresponsible and must be improved,” Steinhaus said.
In addition to federal laws, all sea turtles in Florida – loggerheads, green turtles, leatherbacks, Kemp’s ridley and hawksbill – are listed as endangered or vulnerable and are protected by state statutes.
● For more on Florida’s sea turtles, visit the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website.
Photos provided by Center for Biological Diversity; above: a loggerhead escapes a net because of a turtle excluder device.
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