One inch could save thousands of sea turtles

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It seems as though every other day we hear about new foods we shouldn’t be eating. Whether it’s methane emissions from cattle, almond farms contributing to the water shortage in the West, or imported shrimp pumped with antibiotics and peeled by slaves—even the most well-informed consumer may wonder what’s acceptable for the dinner plate. 

The problems with our modern food systems are many, overwhelming and seemingly intractable. But what if there was a simple step our government could take to dramatically improve the quality of one of our favorite foods? What if we could ensure that our domestic, wild-caught shrimp was sustainably caught? 

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The government estimates that over 50,000 endangered and threatened sea turtles are caught and killed in Southeast and Gulf shrimp trawls every year.  In fact, the U.S. Southeast shrimp trawl fishery throws out 64 percent of what it catches—roughly 229 million pounds of fish and other marine wildlife. For many consumers, this is an unacceptable level of collateral damage for the sake of a shrimp cocktail, leading some to swear off shrimp for good.    

However, there is a solution that is surprisingly simple. Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) are metal grates inserted into a trawl net that allow captured turtles (and other non-target marine animals) to escape before they drown, reducing both sea turtle and fish bycatch. Testing has proven TEDs to be 97 percent effective in reducing the number of sea turtles captured when installed properly. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has required TEDs on certain types of shrimp trawls, known as otter trawls, since the mid-1990s. However, other types of nets are exempt from TED requirements:  this includes about 2,400 “skimmer trawls” in the Southeast, as well as pusher-head and butterfly trawls. While these fishermen are subject to seasonal tow-time limits, those limits can be ineffective because they are difficult to enforce. NOAA’s own estimates found that revoking the tow-time restriction and developing a workable TED for all trawls would save at least 5,515 sea turtles every year, and we believe it could save even more than that.  

And now, this “workable TED for all trawls” exists. Testing done by NOAA in 2013 found that a simple modification of reducing a TED’s bar space by only 1 inch could reduce fish bycatch by 25 percent, saving 55 million pounds of seafood in the process, as well as allowing sea turtles that had previously been too small to be caught by the grate’s bars and escape the nets. This testing shows there is clear and irrefutable science to move forward with a strong federal rule that will protect the thousands of sea turtles and fish that are needlessly killed in this fishery every year.  

In addition to saving ocean wildlife, requiring improved TEDs in all shrimp trawls would benefit the American shrimp industry. Presently, the shrimp landed by Southeastern otter trawls are certified as “Good Alternatives” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, since they are required to use TEDs. In contrast, the shrimp landed by the other types of Southeast trawl vessels in every state but Florida are red-listed by Seafood Watch and unable to sell their product in the more than 13,000 retail outlets around the country that closely follow Seafood Watch’s recommendations. As the only state requiring TEDs on all shrimp trawls, Florida’s shrimp is also considered a “Good Alternative.” Clearly, issuing a strong TED requirement for all trawls would result in an economic benefit for these fishermen by allowing them to access new markets and making domestic, sustainably harvested shrimp a more attractive choice for American consumers.  

U.S. fisheries are rightly recognized as some of the best-managed in the world. But there is still work to be done. Cracking down on bycatch in one of America’s most important national fisheries would be a big step forward and would bolster this reputation. This would be a long-term win for fishermen, seafood consumers, sea turtles and the entire Southeast region. Americans want to support U.S. businesses, and they want to do so without compromising their conservation ethics. By requiring the latest bycatch reduction technology—a simple change of 1 inch—the Obama administration can leave a legacy of commitment to profitable, sustainable fishing, while setting a global example.

It’s rare that an opportunity arises to have such a drastic impact with so simple a solution. We may not be able to end the droughts in California or cap industrial cattle methane emissions with a minor modification of a single piece of equipment. But here, with one small tweak, we could dramatically improve the survival prospects of sea turtles and the recovery of sea turtle populations in the Gulf and in the Southeast Atlantic. I just hope President Obama and Secretary Pritzker recognize a win-win legacy issue when they see it.   

Snyder is a campaign director at Oceana, the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans.

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