The Trouble with Turtles

Louisiana shrimpers headed to Baton Rouge to raise hell about problems plaguing their communities and industry.Two issues recieved the brunt of their anger:1) a massive drop in the price of shrimp2) NOAA and some environmental groups blaming the shrimp fleet for a spike in sea turtle strandings.On the first issue we stand firmly with the shrimpers. It’s outrageous that the precipitous drop in dock-side prices of shrimp, which is clearly related to BP’s deepwater drilling disaster, isn’t being paid for by BP’s Gulf Coast Claims Facility. If BP is serious about making communities whole in the wake of their disaster (as their ads continue to claim), it’s critical that the folks paying the price for the public’s understandable concerns about seafood from the BP impact zone are given the resources necessary to weather the storm. The sea turtle issue, while more complicated from our perspective, certainly raises some concerns as well. Gulf sea turtle strandings through spring and summer 2010 were more than 5 times the average from 1986-2009, according to a conservative look at NOAA data; Kemp’s Ridley (the most endangered turtle in the Gulf) strandings increased tenfold or more in the Mississippi Sound in the spring and summer of 2010. It’s understandable that organizations such as the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sea Turtle Conservancy and others are demanding action from NOAA to protect the highly vulnerable Gulf sea turtles, and we’re glad to see NOAA starting up a process to take a look at the problems. After BP dumped 15 Exxon Valdez’s into the Gulf, and topped it off with nearly 2 million gallons of dispersant, we should take a hard look at all the sources of sea turtle mortality, and do everything possible to ratchet them down as soon as possible. This reasoning is essentially why we urged NOAA to push for a gear switch for the surface long-line fleet when our conservation partners pointed out that gear’s high levels of blue fin tuna bycatch.But something doesn’t add up. The spike in sea turtle deaths is tracking the horrific spike in dead baby dolphins, for which scientists are pointing to BP’s oil and dispersant impacts as major causes. Also, if we’re blaming shrimpers for historic levels of sea turtle deaths, we would expect to see historic levels of shrimping happening in the Gulf. While we’re tracking down effort data from the states, the shrimpers I know and trust tell me that the effort is way down (see complaint #1 above). TED’s are only allowed by NOAA if the design is 97% effective when used properly, so they are a big reason that Gulf sea turtles have been coming back (along with nesting habitat protection).NOAA is citing a significant increase in non-compliance with the turtle excluder device (TED) regulations, but it’s hard to imagine why the non-compliance rate would go through the roof post-BP. Shrimpers we work with don’t actually complain about TEDS, pointing out that they help decrease the amount of garbage that ends up fouling their nets, as well as helping protect turtles. Rule breakers shouldn’t be tolerated, and NOAA should absolutely be working with the Coast Guard and state agencies to ensure that TEDS are being used, and are properly installed and functioning. This is an approach that shrimpers don’t necessarily dispute. But my friends in the shrimping community are honestly shocked that the compliance has supposedly dropped off so much, and feel that the fix is in.What we’re sure about, is that BP’s crude and ineffective, toxic Corexit has fouled areas of the Gulf that are critical for turtles and for shrimpers. In my eyes, BP is the bad guy here, and we shouldn’t ever lose sight of that. We absolutely need to restore the Gulf, protect our wildlife, defend our communities, and create a clean future. Only if the communities of the Gulf coast work together will we achieve those goals. I’d be remiss if I posted about Gulf shrimpers and didn’t mention the horrible blow that their community recieved this week with the death of Bayou La Batre, AL shrimper Chris LaForce. Chris was a fearless advocate for his community, for the Gulf, and for shrimpers across the region. He will be greatly missed.A united Gulf is a healthy Gulf.Aaron Viles is GRN’s deputy director. For shorter insights, you can follow him on twitter here.

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