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Thousands of Sea Turtles Die in U.S. Fishing Gear

Posted: 10/27/11 10:35 AM ET

At least 4,600 sea turtles are dying in fishing gear each year in this country, and that's outrageous.

All six species of sea turtle found in U.S. waters are at risk of extinction and are protected by the Endangered Species Act. Sea turtles are beautiful, majestic animals, and if we want our children and grandchildren to be able to swim in seas that are full of turtles, then we have to give them a breather.

The 4,600 figure comes from a new study, and according to scientists at Oceana, the actual number of sea turtles killed in U.S. fisheries is likely significantly higher because we know little about what many fisheries are actually catching.

We know that shrimp trawl nets in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Coast are a big culprit, accounting for a whopping 98 percent of all sea turtles caught in U.S. fisheries. The use of turtle escape hatches (also called turtle excluder devices or TEDs) in shrimp trawls is supposed to keep most of these turtles from drowning but recent evidence shows that fishermen are not properly using this gear. This is another reason why the real number of turtles dying in U.S. fisheries is likely much higher than 4,600.

The good news from the study is that we have the tools we need to protect sea turtles -- but we have to try harder. Strong sea turtle protections and enforcement of those protections are urgently needed.

As Oceana scientist Elizabeth Griffin Wilson points out, we have to take a more big picture approach to protecting sea turtles. The government needs to look at the impacts of all fisheries on sea turtles and ensure consistent protections. For example, most shrimp trawlers need those sea turtle escape hatches, but other fishermen -- like the scallop trawlers on the East Coast -- don't have to use gear that would let the turtles escape the nets.

It's crazy: The government lists these animals as endangered or threatened with extinction but then allows thousands of them to get killed. It is senseless.

Sea turtles have been swimming the oceans since before the dinosaurs. Are we going to let them go extinct now because we can't step back and see the big picture?

You can help by joining Oceana in the fight to get sea turtles off the hook.