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Efforts to help sea turtles effective

South Florida

Efforts to help sea turtles effective

By Frank Helies

January 22, 2012

This month, the National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to present the findings of a two-year investigation into the interactions between sea turtles and the Southeastern commercial shrimp trawl fishery. The resulting document will have significant impacts on the future of the fishery in Florida. Before judging the document, it is important to consider the long cultural history and great strides taken over the years to reduce catching unwanted marine life, or bycatch, in this fishery.

Since the invention of the otter trawl and its use to harvest shrimp, commercial shrimp fishermen have been refining their fishing strategies and/or gear to reduce the harvest of nontarget species, and it started long before the prospect of regulations. In fact, bycatch-reduction technology for shrimp trawls pioneered by fishermen from the United States is now being utilized across the globe.

The advent of bycatch reduction in this fishery occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the integration of gear designed to exclude softball-size jellyfish. These industry-designed "cannonball shooters" became the precursor to modern turtle-excluder devices and were integrated into trawl nets prior to the implementation of national and regional bycatch regulations.

In the late 1970s, the marine fisheries service began developing the first TED, specific to excluding sea turtles. The initial design of this device, while successful at excluding sea turtles, was cumbersome and led to high shrimp loss. A formal program was undertaken in the early 1980s to encourage the voluntary adoption of a modified version of the agency's TED. This program achieved little success.

The industry solicited the assistance of the University of Georgia Marine Extension to test several industry-designed TEDs. Several weeks of assessment tests were conducted off Cape Canaveral in the summer of 1986. Fishermen, environmental groups and state representatives from throughout the Southeast participated.

These tests showed that the industry-designed devices were not only more effective than the marine fisheries service TED, but were also less expensive and easier to use. Ultimately, the formal TED testing protocol and the first TED regulations came out of these industry-initiated assessment cruises.

TED regulations were implemented in 1990 and were thought to reduce sea turtle mortality by up to 97 percent. The current TED regulations went into effect in 2003 for the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, the principal difference focused upon larger escape openings for loggerhead, adult green and leatherback sea turtles.

The Kemp's Ridley population began to increase in 1985 (before the TED mandate) largely due to beach-protection efforts. The U.S. shrimp industry identified a need to support beach protection and turtle conservation on the important turtle nesting grounds in Mexico. Monetary support was provided to Mexican authorities to improve beach patrols to deter poaching.

Some of the generated funds were used to purchase a number of ATVs for beach patrol. Additional funding was raised to build lodging and drill a water well for visiting scientists and volunteers. This industry-generated funding continues, and turtle nest counts are at or near historic levels.

Not all turtles that strand do so because of interactions with shrimp trawlers. Despite increased restrictions, almost universal TED compliance, and seasonal fishery closures, the number of sea turtles that washed up dead on U.S. beaches still increased from 1,575 in 1992 to 3,747 in 1996.

A recent spike in strandings in the Gulf has occurred during little or no shrimping activity. The cause of the strandings is unknown and could be human-related or natural. In part, higher numbers of strandings may be due to increasing sea turtle populations brought about by vigorous TED implementation, restocking and past conservation efforts.

Despite a decreasing level of shrimp-fishing effort, the probability of chance encounters between turtles and trawlers/recreational watercraft increases as the turtles' populations increase.

Frank Helies is program director of the Gulf and South Atlantic Fisheries Foundation.

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