Gulf shrimpers battling over turtle rules

LAFITTE, La. — Efforts to protect endangered sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico have prompted strenuous complaints from the dwindling fleet of shrimpers blamed for drowning them in their nets, who say their own livelihoods are threatened.

By next March the federal government wants about 2,435 shrimp boats — most run by mom-and-pop operations — to install turtle-saving gear in their nets to protect the Kemp’s ridley turtle, whose survival has gained renewed concern after BP’s catastrophic 2010 Gulf oil spill. The spill prompted closer study of turtle deaths, though scientists have concluded that most were due to drowning, most likely in nets, and not effects of the oil spill.

Fishermen say the gear will cause them to lose shrimp, cut into their paltry profits and drive their waning industry into an even deeper hole. The fishermen also insist the new gear is unnecessary because they hardly ever catch turtles.

The gear is already required for trawlers in federal waters. The new rule would apply to nets used in state waters, closer to shore, where many shrimpers operate.

“These people are trying to put us out of work and put us on the food stamp line,” said Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association.

Fishermen feel like they can’t catch a break. Imports of cheap farm-raised shrimp, hurricanes, high fuel prices and the BP oil spill have driven about 4,000 boats off the water in Louisiana over the past decade. The number of commercial shrimpers is declining elsewhere, too.

The new measures are meant to protect turtles — and especially the endangered Kemp’s ridley turtle. Measuring 100 pounds and 2 feet in length as adults, they’re considered the world’s smallest marine turtles.

Since the 1980s Mexico and the United States have partnered to bring the species back from the brink of extinction. After the BP oil spill began, scientists along the Gulf Coast rushed to collect Kemp’s ridley and loggerhead turtle eggs from beach nests for incubation in Florida with the intent of releasing hatchlings in the safer waters of the Atlantic. Mexico also has taken measures to protect beach nesting areas and hatchlings.

Earlier this year the National Marine Fisheries Service — under pressure by environmental lawsuits — said it would develop rules to make nearly every commercial shrimper along the Gulf and South Atlantic install in nets the grill-like apparatus called a “turtle excluder device” to propel ensnared turtles to freedom. The grills are known as TEDs.

The agency says it hopes the rules will be completed and in effect by March 2013. Shrimpers, meanwhile, are sour and angry at the prospect.

That was the mood at Robert Boudreaux’s net shop in Lafitte on Barataria Bay on a recent morning where a handful of the only shrimpers left in this town drank coffee as they watched the lightning-fast fingers of net makers knit nylon webbing.

“The net is like a giant funnel and as it funnels down; right when it gets to the point like that of a bottle you install the TED,” Boudreaux, the net maker, explained.

But he said TEDs present many problems for small boats.

“You’re not dragging in a swimming pool where everything’s clean,” he said. “You’re dragging in water with trash and debris. Debris comes in there, jams in the TED, and then shoots out your shrimp!”

The TED has a contentious history.

In the 1980s, regulators first proposed Gulf fishermen use them, sparking what fishermen still refer to as the “the TED wars.”

During the summer of 1989, an armada of shrimp boats, some flying skull and bones flags, formed blockades into the ports of Lake Charles, Houston and Corpus Christi to protest TED rules. Things got ugly with gunshots reported; a Coast Guard cutter’s window was broken; boaters tried to run the blockades and protesters were sprayed with water cannons.

TEDs became the law anyway for trawlers in offshore federal waters. In response, many shrimpers stopped going far offshore.

Now, regulators want to close that loophole by requiring fishermen in state waters use TEDs. Regulators estimate about 5,515 turtles would be saved each year.

“It’s clear that the skimmer fleet is taking a massive toll on sea turtles,” said Teri Shore, program director of the Sea Turtle Restoration Network, a California-based group that’s filed lawsuits to protect sea turtles.

A spike in dead turtles along the northern Gulf since early 2010 has added urgency. Since then, 1,519 sea turtles have been found stranded or dead. About 85 percent are Kemp’s ridley turtles, National Marine Fisheries Service data shows. Federal scientists say most of the turtles died due to drowning, most likely in nets, and not from BP’s oil spill.

Environmentalists say increased monitoring of the Gulf since the spill shows the shrimp fleet is killing turtles.

“What the oil spill did was shine a great big spotlight on dead turtles and they weren’t covered in oil,” said Carole Allen, founder of Help Endangered Animals-Ridley Turtles, a Texas group that’s pushed for more regulations on the shrimp fleet since the 1980s.

Environmentalists also say the price for TEDs is small. Federal scientists say about 5 percent of a fisherman’s catch is expected to be lost due to the gear, which costs up to $400 a net to install.

Yet shrimpers insist that’s not the case.

“I’ve caught three turtles in my whole career,” said Pete Gerica, 59.

Matthew Moreau, a 37-year-old shrimper, said he’s caught a few turtles but when he does he returns them to the water. “Why would we keep them?”

To prove how many turtles are caught, this year the National Marine Fisheries Service is spending $2 million to send contractors out on shrimp boats to catalogue the catch. So far, 24 Kemp’s ridley turtles have been caught while observers were onboard, NMFS said.

Shrimpers are hardly happy about observers on their cramped boats.

“Me and him didn’t see eye to eye,” said Henry Hess, a 53-yer-old fisherman about the observer he had on his boat. “I don’t like people trying to get rid of my job. I wanted to throw him off my boat.”

Requests by The Associated Press to interview the observers, hired by Florida-based IAP World Services Inc., were denied.

Fishermen aren’t the only ones questioning the need for TEDs.

“Without doubt, uncategorically, it’s the shrimper (who’s more endangered),” said Jerald Horst, a retired Louisiana State University fisheries specialist.

In the late 1980s, there were roughly 16,500 shrimp net licenses issued in Louisiana. The number dropped to about 5,240 in 2007, according to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Meanwhile, the number of Kemp’s ridley turtles is on the rebound. In 2009, more than 20,000 nests were counted on the same Mexican beaches where only 702 were found in the 1980s.

TEDs, though, may be the fishermen’s best hope to survive, said Roy Crabtree, Southeast regional administrator at NMFS.

“Folks can say, ‘TEDs put us out of business,’” Crabtree said. “But the fact is TEDs saved the (offshore) shrimp fishery. It would have ended up being closed down under the Endangered Species Act. So, TEDs gave us a technological solution to a very serious problem.”

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