New generation of ocean lovers protecting sea turtles

I have had the opportunity to witness some staggering natural wonders, but few stand out more than the night I stood on a moonlit beach in Costa Rica watching a female leatherback crawl from the tide, dragging her prehistoric girth up the shore. I was entranced by her majesty and determination, by her slow plod away from the water, and the delicacy with which she worked her hind flippers through the sand and created a hole in which to lay her eggs. Her eyes, black and shiny, were crusted with sand and salt water, giving the impression of tears. After she had deposited her eggs into the sand, we watched her slow crawl back to the sea. She and her kind have laid eggs to sand, giving rise to new generations in this manner since the time of the dinosaurs.

And yet, we are rapidly making moments like this one, so precious to me and so many others, impossible. That leatherback and her kind are now terribly endangered.

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My grandfather used to say, “People protect what they love, and they love what they know.” My grandfather’s life was dedicated to helping more people to know, to see, to understand the treasures in our oceans. As I have tried to follow in his footsteps, and spoken with many, many people about the oceans, I have learned he was right: to get to know the ocean is to fall in love. And it’s that love that makes me hopeful for the future of sea turtles in the Southeastern United States. Because even though sea turtles are in serious trouble, a new generation is learning about these iconic ocean creatures, falling in love, and standing up to protect them.

Every species of sea turtle in Southeast U.S. waters is threatened or endangered. Indiscriminate shrimp trawl nets pose perhaps the greatest risks, swallowing fish, crabs, turtles, and some shrimp. That’s right — just some shrimp. Many people may not realize that shrimp trawls catch more fish, turtles and other sea life than they do shrimp. Sixty-two percent of what comes up in shrimpers’ nets is considered bycatch: Non-target animals that are killed and discarded at sea. This is actually an improvement over what used to be a 90 percent bycatch rate, but greater progress is still needed. Government estimates currently put the number of sea turtle deaths at 50,000 every year.   

These deaths could be prevented by Turtle Excluder Devices, known as TEDs. First developed by fishermen, TEDs are metal grates placed in trawls that allow shrimp to pass through, but redirect larger fish and sea turtles to an escape opening in the net. TEDs have been shown to be 97 percent effective at preventing sea turtle deaths when used properly, and newer versions of the devices with smaller bar-spacing have been shown to reduce fish bycatch by an additional 25 percent. Many trawls are required to use TEDs, but currently about 2,400 vessels in the Gulf of Mexico and Southeast shrimp trawl fisheries are exempted.

As long as these exemptions are in place, turtles will continue to needlessly die, and this is something that a new crop of ocean lovers refuses to accept. Last week, on World Sea Turtle Day, more than 12,500 letters from every state in the U.S. were delivered to the White House (PHOTOS). This appeal is coming from our smallest ocean advocates — thousands of children who are asking President Obama and Secretary of Commerce Penny PritzkerPenny Sue PritzkerThe Hill's Morning Report - Sanders steamrolls to South Carolina primary, Super Tuesday Biden's new campaign ad features Obama speech praising him Obama Commerce secretary backs Biden's 2020 bid MORE to protect sea turtles and require that all shrimp trawls use smaller-spaced TEDs. These children want to know that when they grow up, they’ll have a chance to encounter one of these beautiful animals.

A child’s perspective, in its simplicity, can be wise. Sea turtles are being killed. A simple action, a simple device, could prevent these deaths. The solution, then, is clear: require TEDs in all shrimp trawls. 

This should be reason enough to move the Obama administration to act. But requiring TEDs in all trawls would also benefit other fishermen in the Gulf and the Southeast, and even shrimpers themselves. In a report released last month, my friends at Oceana have described how a TED requirement would leave more fish in the region’s waters to be caught by recreational and commercial fishers; it would reduce the time shrimpers would have to spend sorting out excess fish bycatch; and finally, such a requirement would open up new markets, like Whole Foods, to shrimpers whose products are currently red-listed due to the lack of TED enforcement. 

We all leave behind legacies, whether we mean to or not.  The question is, what will that legacy be? I think about this a lot. I know that because of how I grew up, because of my father’s name and his father’s name and what they did to change the world, that I feel compelled to continue that work, in my own fashion. I understand the power of legacy.

This is why I hope that President Obama and Secretary Pritzker will recognize the importance of last week’s events. The delivery of these letters was not simply a cute photo-opp or a political stunt. It represents an opportunity to protect turtles, yes, but also by heeding these young voices, this administration can plant the seeds of civic engagement — the desire to make the world a better place — in the hearts of thousands of children. By taking action, the administration can show these young people that yes, protecting our oceans matters, and yes, their voices and actions matter.

Just imagine the things these children will go on to do, knowing that they helped move a President, and helped to save an animal that they love. This is a legacy worth pursuing.

Alexandra Cousteau is a Senior Advisor for Oceana. She is the granddaughter of legendary ocean explorer, conservationist and filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau.