From Kemp's Ridley sea turtles, usually weighing less than 100 pounds when fully grown, to the leatherback, the largest turtle on earth, all seven species of sea turtles living in U.S. oceans are listed as endangered or threatened with extinction. These animals contribute to the biodiversity of our oceans and the health of their ecosystems, and yet thousands die unnecessarily in our country's waters each year. Fortunately, a clear opportunity exists right now to help these animals, as a simple policy change could make significant progress in reducing the number of sea turtles killed each year.
After hatching on land, sea turtles spend most of their lives in the ocean, where the most significant threat to their survival is unintentional capture in fishing gear, or bycatch. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that U.S. shrimp trawlers could capture and kill more than 50,000 threatened or endangered sea turtles each year in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. To catch wild shrimp, large trawl nets are dragged across the seafloor, indiscriminately capturing shrimp and anything else that happens to be in the area. The nets use small mesh netting, making it difficult for larger species like sea turtles and finfish to escape. As a result, Southeastern shrimp trawls produce the most bycatch of any U.S. fishery, wasting two-thirds of their total catch.
Fortunately, the installation of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) offers a solution. These are specialized metal grates which, inserted in trawl nets, can allow captured sea turtles to escape. Testing has demonstrated that these devices are 97 percent effective at preventing the deaths of captured sea turtles.
As part of a new campaign to increase the number TEDs and protect more sea turtles, Oceana and One More Generation (OMG) are calling on the next generation of sea turtle lovers to write a letter or draw a picture telling President Obama and Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker why they love sea turtles and why they should be protected. The groups will collect these letters and deliver them to the President and the Secretary of Commerce on World Sea Turtle Day (June 16, 2016).
Oceana and OMG will call on the federal government to require universal adoption of TEDs, as to date, the U.S. has only mandated them on certain types of shrimp trawls. By requiring TEDs on all shrimp trawls, thousands of additional endangered and threatened sea turtles could be saved each year.
When sea turtles are needlessly killed as bycatch, ecosystems -- and the ocean as a whole -- suffer. Sea turtles have played vital roles in maintaining the health of the world's oceans for more than 100 million years. Green sea turtles, for example, are one of the few large species that eat seagrass; their grazing helps improve the productivity and nutrient content of seagrass beds, which in turn helps nourish the rest of the local food web. Hawksbill sea turtles help maintain productive reef ecosystems by eating the sponges that aggressively compete with coral. Leatherback sea turtles, to the benefit of both fish and swimmers, help keep jellyfish populations under control. And when sea turtles of all types return to their ancestral nesting sites to lay eggs, the broken shells left behind deliver essential nutrients from the oceans to beaches and coastal dunes.
Requiring the use of TEDs will also provide economic benefit to the industry. Due to the lack of protections for endangered and threatened sea turtles, seafood buying guides currently warn consumers against shrimp caught by more than 2,400 Southeast skimmer trawl vessels. A TED requirement would alleviate these concerns and help ensure that shrimp caught by skimmer trawls is no longer "red-listed," allowing fishermen to sell their shrimp to additional markets.
The U.S. government has the authority to issue a fishery-wide Turtle Excluder Device requirement in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Doing so would immediately address a threatened population and help keep our oceans healthy and abundant. With World Sea Turtle Day approaching on June 16, there is no better time to act.
To learn more about Oceana's work protecting sea turtles, as well as download materials to send your own letter, including a factsheet and letter and drawing templates, please visit usa.oceana.org/turtles. . Please send your letters no later than May 23, 2016 to either of the addresses listed below. Letters may also be scanned and emailed:
Attn: Save Sea Turtles
1350 Connecticut Ave. NW 5th Floor
Washington, DC 20036
One More Generation
Attn: Save Sea Turtles
P.O. Box 143627
Fayetteville GA 30214