WASHINGTON— Conservation groups filed a lawsuit today to prevent sea turtles from drowning when they get caught in shrimp trawl nets in the Gulf of Mexico and southeast Atlantic.
Earthjustice filed the suit against the National Marine Fisheries Service on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Turtle Island Restoration Network. The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The suit challenges a Trump administration rule on key protective gear called turtle excluder devices, or TEDs, on shrimp boats. Turtle excluder devices have been required — and successfully used — on many fishing vessels for decades to help sea turtles escape when they get swept into shrimp trawler nets.
In 2019 the Trump administration exempted a significant number of shrimp trawlers in the Gulf of Mexico and south Atlantic from the requirement to use turtle excluder devices. The federal rule exempts vessels that are smaller than 40 feet — as well as those that use certain gear types — from using turtle excluder devices.
In today’s legal filing, the groups ask the court to reverse the Trump administration decision. The new rule ignored the best available science and backtracked on a much stronger proposed rule from the Obama administration. The Trump administration’s rule, which becomes effective on August 1, could more than double the number of sea turtles killed each year. The Fisheries Service estimates the exemption will lead to an estimated 1,300 preventable sea turtle deaths each year.
“Turtle excluder devices are a proven way to prevent sea turtles from needlessly drowning in shrimp trawls,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “They also keep other wildlife from getting caught accidentally in the nets, making more room for shrimp. Using turtle excluders is not just compassionate, it’s good 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. Five endangered and threatened sea turtle species are harmed by this rule. The exemption is expected to cause the greatest harm to Kemp’s ridley sea turtles — the most critically endangered sea turtle — which swim throughout the Gulf and gather en masse to nest in Mexico and on the Texas coast each year.
“The Fisheries Service’s official Endangered Species Act recovery plans for Kemp’s ridley and loggerhead sea turtles explicitly call for requiring turtle excluder devices on all shrimp trawlers as critical to rescuing the species,” said Earthjustice attorney Chris Eaton. “We’re going to court to make sure that happens.”
Conservative estimates suggest that, on average, shrimp trawlers routinely kill and discard about three pounds of unintentionally caught marine life, called bycatch, for every pound of shrimp they haul in. The bycatch includes thousands of sea turtles that drown each 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.”
The suit demonstrates that the Fisheries Service’s weakened rule violates the Endangered Species Act, Administrative Procedure Act and National Environmental Policy Act. Among other things, the Fisheries Service ignored scientific data showing that reducing fishery-caused sea turtle deaths is vital to recovering imperiled turtle species; provided no rational basis for its exemption; imposed the new rule without properly seeking public input; and did an environmental analysis that fails to adequately assess the effect that exempting so many vessels from using turtle excluder devices will have on sea turtle populations.
“Turtle excluder devices help reduce the impacts of shrimp fishing on sea turtles, seagrass beds, and other innocent marine species. No shrimp trawlers should be allowed without them,” said Turtle Island Restoration Network Gulf Program Director Joanie Steinhaus. “While many nations are eliminating shrimp trawling due to its harmful impacts on marine ecosystems, we must ensure all shrimp trawls use these devices, regardless of the size of the vessel. Enforcing this rule is the least we can do.”