NOAA REACHES SETTLEMENT WITH NGOs ON TURTLE LAWSUIT, ISSUES PROPOSED REGULATIONS FOR SKIMMER TRAWLS
SSA greatly appreciates NOAA’s efforts to successfully negotiate a settlement that rejects the repeated and unjustified demands of environmental NGOs to shut down the entire shrimp fishery due to its interactions with Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles. Link to settlement: http://www.shrimpalliance.com//?p=1830
SSA has a long and firm commitment to sea turtle conservation and is proud of the shrimp industry’s remarkable contributions to the ongoing recovery of the Kemp’s Ridley and other sea turtles. Once the most endangered of all sea turtle species, the 2011 Bi-National Recovery Plan now describes the recovery of the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle population as “exponential” and approaching the threshold for down-listing under the Endangered Species Act. Link to Recovery Plan document: http://www.shrimpalliance.com//?p=1833
The shrimp industry’s contributions include both the protection and resuscitation of turtles to greatly minimize injury or drowning during fishing operations as well as the provision of financing, equipment and personnel to support the incredibly successful nesting beach protection and turtle hatchling ‘head start’ programs in Texas and Mexico.
SSA’s further contributions to a better understanding of the unfortunate stranding of Kemp’s Ridley turtles observed in the Gulf as well as to improving the use and effectiveness of TEDs to reduce the impacts of the shrimp fishery on sea turtles are further outlined below. At the same time, SSA has vigorously defended the shrimp fishery against false allegations and faulty science that threatened to shut down the fishery.
In May and June, 2011, three separate petitions were filed by several environmental NGOs well known for their litigious approach to leveraging excessive federal regulation of US fisheries. Each of the petitions attempted to link the high number of strandings of Kemp’s Ridley turtles observed in certain areas of the northern Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and 2011 to shrimp fishing and a reduced level of compliance with federal Turtle Excluder Device (TED) requirements. Each of these petitions was based on faulty analyses and assertions that were ultimately rejected by NOAA in July and August, respectively. To view NOAA letters rejecting all 3 petitions: http://www.shrimpalliance.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/8-3-11-NOAA-denial-of-Oceana-Petition.pdf
Notwithstanding these rejections, some of the same environmental NGOs filed a lawsuit against NOAA in October, 2011, that included many of the same flawed allegations. Both the petitions and this lawsuit called for the immediate closure of the Gulf shrimp fishery among other draconian regulations which threatened to put thousands of shrimpers out of work and throw their families and fishery-dependent communities into an economic catastrophe. Link to lawsuit document: http://www.shrimpalliance.com//?p=1827
SSA took the issues raised by the environmental NGOs head-on. It played an important role in refuting many of the faulty analyses and assertions set forth in the petitions and lawsuit, and provided needed leadership for the industry to successfully address its TED compliance issues. Dozens of meetings with industry and NOAA officials at all levels produced many positive results that SSA can be proud of.
Improving TED Compliance
Once informed of the problem, SSA immediately took a strong stance of condemning deliberate noncompliance but also called on fishermen to take responsibility by working with NOAA enforcement personnel and gear specialists to correct unintentional compliance problems. This led to a highly effective cooperative outreach and education initiative that included preseason dockside inspections designed to help fishermen fix TED problems before leaving the dock.
Throughout this process SSA communicated with thousands of fishermen through a sequence of open letters to the industry at large from SSA Executive Director John Williams as well through a series of 23 meetings with shrimpers throughout the Gulf region. To view John Williams letter to industry: http://www.shrimpalliance.com/?p=752 SSA’s strong and consistent message was for the industry to take specific steps to bring their gear into full compliance with federal requirements and for NOAA to maintain a strong and consistent enforcement presence as the most effective means to ensure compliance.
Taking yet another approach, SSA also submitted a detailed restoration project proposal to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) program to equip all shrimp trawl vessels with new TEDs. The proposal was made in recognition that old, worn-out and stretched TEDs are less effective in excluding turtles and become increasingly difficult to maintain in full compliance with precise TED regulations. They are also very expensive for fishermen to replace.
New TED equipment would yield an immediate increase in TED compliance and a significant reduction in sea turtle mortality. As stated in SSA’s proposal, “The full deployment of new TEDs in the Gulf shrimp fishery would reduce sea turtle injury and mortality, increase the effectiveness of public and private sector efforts to protect and restore threatened and endangered sea turtles, and help mitigate any adverse impacts of the spill and clean-up activities on these species.” To date, SSA has not received a response from the NRDA program. SSA’s proposal to NRDA:
Throughout this effort, NOAA worked in a remarkably cooperative and constructive manner with SSA and shrimp fishermen to address the TED compliance issue. While some of these problems involved the practices of fishermen and netmakers, others were linked to the complexity of the regulations themselves. This led NOAA to develop with SSA’s input a new, clearer set of TED compliance standards and penalty schedule. The net result of these extensive and continuing efforts is that shrimp industry compliance with TED requirements has risen sharply and is now well above 80 percent.
Analyzing Turtle Strandings
SSA performed extensive analyses of federal and State shrimp fishing effort, strandings and State enforcement records. These analyses confirmed that the vast majority of Kemp’s Ridley turtle strandings occur each year during times and in areas when shrimp fishing effort is very low or non-existent. The high level of observed strandings appears to occur annually in March, April and early May before any meaningful level of inshore fishing activity begins. To this day it is not clear what environmental, biological or other factors contribute to these annual stranding events.
In only one instance was there a potential causal link between shrimp activity and strandings found in SSA’s analyses. This occurred in June 2010 shortly after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and shortly after an unusual partial reopening of the fishing season in Mississippi. Although there remains no definitive evidence linking the strandings to drowning in shrimp nets, it is possible that the presence of surface oil in extensive areas of sea turtle habitat and the closure of vast areas to shrimp fishing combined to concentrate shrimpers and turtles trying to escape the oil into the same relatively small and confined area.
It is also remains very plausible that strandings were linked to the effects of the oil spill. In fact, only very recently have new NOAA images been revealed showing the extent of Kemp’s Ridley turtles seriously injured and killed by the spilled oil. To view Greenpeace site/photos: http://greenpeaceblogs.com/2012/05/07/shocking-new-images-from-the-bp-gulf-disaster/
In any case, SSA’s analyses confirmed that the brief spike in strandings in June 2010 did not occur in 2009 -and was not repeated in 2011- strongly suggesting this was a one-time event. Nevertheless, the environmental NGOs attempted to use this event to convince NOAA, the States and the public that the shrimp fishery was primarily responsible for all turtle strandings. The failure to release these photos at the time of the strandings may have contributed to this false allegation.
SSA’s analysis also refuted the credibility of widely-publicized conclusions drawn from necropsies performed on some of the stranded turtles. The vast majority of these turtles were in a state of moderate or severe decomposition, yet the sole NOAA veterinarian charged with performing nearly all of these necropsies jumped to the premature conclusion that the presence of fluids and sediment in the lungs meant that the turtles died from “forced submergence”, and that it was likely the turtles had drowned in shrimp trawls.
Perhaps the most obvious flaw in the necropsy conclusions revealed by SSA’s analyses was that sediment was found in the lungs of a number of turtles stranded during March 2011 when there were only 2 shrimp trawl vessels operating in the area-both of which were inspected by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources enforcement personnel and found to be in full compliance with federal TED requirements. Clearly, if sediment is found in the lungs of stranded turtles both in the presence and absence of shrimp fishing, then the presence of sediment is not a valid indicator of turtles drowning in shrimp trawls. To its great credit, NOAA has since insisted on a full and detailed analysis of the facts and rejected many false assertions and faulty analyses regarding the shrimp fishery’s role in the turtle strandings. Link to SSA Update which includes the key charts and an explanation of the analyses : http://www.shrimpalliance.com/?p=826
Proposed Rule to Require TEDs in Skimmer Trawls
If finalized, the Proposed Rule will require the use of TEDs in skimmer trawlers for the first time. Link to Proposed Rule: http://www.ofr.gov/OFRUpload/OFRData/2012-11201_PI.pdf This is a very important fishery that provides relatively economical, fuel-efficient access for thousands of shrimpers to shrimp resources in the Gulf and South Atlantic. Thus, the justification for this proposal and its implications for the skimmer trawl fishery need to be considered very seriously.
SSA provided detailed comments on this concept during the agency’s scoping process in August 2011 and urged the agency to proceed with great care. Link to SSA comments document: http://www.shrimpalliance.com//wp-content/uploads/2011/08/SSA-Comments-on-Turtles-TEDs-Scoping-document-8-8-11.pdf
As SSA noted then, while it may be intuitive that all trawl gear is likely to interact with sea turtles in turtle habitat areas, all fisheries are unique in this respect. SSA strongly urged the agency to conduct direct scientific observations of the skimmer trawl fishery to better understand where, when and how such interactions occur, rather than to infer such interactions from dubious strandings information. Indeed, the flawed analyses and allegations made by the environmental NGOs in their petitions and lawsuit provide a clear example of the dangers of assuming that shrimp fishing is always responsible for turtle strandings.
If the proposed TED requirement does become a final regulation, SSA again calls on the agency to proceed cautiously and work in close cooperation with skimmer trawl fishermen and the States to develop and implement the TED requirement in a manner that minimizes the economic impacts and other disruptions to this extremely important fishery. While the use of TEDs has become generally accepted and in some areas preferred in the otter trawl shrimp fishery, the process of perfecting the design and use of TEDs took many years and was at great cost to the fishermen. Indeed, it may be necessary to develop new TED designs and technology that are tailored to the unique characteristics of skimmer trawl gear.
SSA is hopeful that the very constructive efforts by NOAA to work with the shrimp fishery through the recent TED compliance and turtle strandings issues will be applied to working with the skimmer trawl fishery in implementing a TED requirement.
SSA also urges the agency to re-consider SSA’s proposal to the NRDA program for a project to equip all shrimp trawl vessels with new TED equipment working in cooperation with the States. The proposal included a section detailing funding for skimmer trawls in anticipation that NOAA might propose this fishery for TED usage. If funded and implemented, SSA’s proposal would substantially contribute to NOAA’s efforts to minimize the economic impacts of requiring TEDs in the skimmer trawl fishery-as well as to enhance overall TED compliance and sea turtle conservation in all shrimp trawl fisheries.