ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— Conservation groups issued a formal notice today of their intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service for drastically weakening rules that prevent sea turtles from dying in shrimp trawl nets.
The Trump administration’s final rule reversed course on a proposed rule about turtle excluder devices in shrimp trawl fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic, reducing the measure’s effectiveness by more than 50%. The weakened rule exempts turtle excluder devices on vessels smaller than 40 feet, which will result in an estimated 1,300 preventable sea turtle deaths from smaller vessels each year.
“A shrimp cocktail is not worth the life of a sea turtle,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “We have to do more to protect these extraordinary creatures before it’s too late. Devices to exclude sea turtles from shrimp nets just make sense.”
There are only seven species of sea turtles in the world, and all sea turtles found in U.S. waters are protected by the Endangered Species Act. In total five endangered and threatened sea turtle species are harmed by this rule, which becomes effective in April.
Conservative estimates suggest that, on average, shrimp trawlers routinely kill and discard about three pounds of unintended “bycatch” for every pound of shrimp they haul in. The bycatch includes thousands of sea turtles that drown every year along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts while being dragged to their deaths in shrimp nets.
“The Fisheries Service’s new rule ignores and exacerbates the reckless killings of some of the most endangered sea turtles on Earth,” said Jane Davenport, a senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “Now more than ever, 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.”
For decades turtle excluder devices have been required for large segments of the U.S. shrimp fleet, but certain gear types have been exempt, resulting in approximately 3,000 preventable sea turtle deaths each year.
“We know that these devices work to keep sea turtles from dying in shrimp nets,” said Earthjustice attorney Chris Eaton. “It is a proven solution that has stopped needless carnage in many places across the globe, and it will work here as well.”
“These new regulations are irresponsible and must be improved. 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 Turtle Island Restoration Network Gulf Program Director Joanie Steinhaus.
Today’s notice gives the agency 60 days to address the violations alleged in the letter before the groups file a lawsuit. The conservation groups — the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Turtle Island Restoration Network — are represented by attorneys with Earthjustice.