Sea Turtle Strandings Come Back to Haunt Bush

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 26, 2001 (ENS) - Newly inaugurated President George W. Bush may think he is back in his home state of Texas when officials of the National Marine Fisheries Service tell him about their latest initiative. The agency is planning a comprehensive approach to reducing sea turtle deaths - an issue that confronted Bush repeatedly during his tenure as governor of Texas.

Preliminary data from the year 2000, released this week, show an extraordinarily high number of sea turtle strandings along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, including Texas. There are many human related factors that contribute to sea turtle deaths, but biologists note a significant number of the total strandings are being caused by fishing gear interactions.

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Sea turtle entangled in derelict gillnet. All sea turtle species are endangered or threatened. (All photos courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA))
"We are extremely concerned about the high levels of sea turtle strandings," said Bill Hogarth, acting director at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). "To protect sea turtle populations for future generations, it is important that we continue maximizing our recovery efforts through communication with stakeholders to find solutions that will minimize the impacts of human interactions with sea turtles while maintaining traditional fishing opportunities."

Since 1980, the NOAA Fisheries Southeast Fisheries Science Center in Miami, Florida, has maintained the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network database. The Stranding Network, a network of private citizens, state and federal agencies from the coastal states of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, and was established to document and collect important information on sea turtles that strand along the coast.

In the year 2000, the preliminary data indicate that the number of sea turtles that stranded along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico was 3,136. In previous years from 1991 through 1999, the average number of strandings for this area was 2,382 a year.

The strandings had their highest increase in the mid-Atlantic states and the Gulf coast of Florida.

There are seven species of sea turtles worldwide - green, loggerhead, olive ridley, Kemp's ridley, hawksbill, and leatherback. Five of these - the green, loggerhead, leatherback, Kemp's ridley, and hawksbill - are found In U.S. waters in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

All species of sea turtles in U.S. waters are threatened or endangered and are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Everywhere that sea turtles are found, conservation groups like the Sea Turtle Restoration Project work to combat the hazards that the marine turtles face. Many human activities contribute to strandings. Some of the turtles that strand are found with fishing gear such as gillnets or hooks and line attached to the carcass.

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Loggerhead sea turtle
Domestic and international, commercial and recreational fisheries that deploy gillnets, trawls, pots, pound nets, longlines and hook and line are all known to accidentally kill or injure turtles with their fishing gear. Turtles may also ingest or become entangled in marine debris.

Dredging operations, power plants and boating activities are documented to accidentally kill or injure turtles. Disturbance of nests and nesting turtles on beaches, and the harvest of adult turtles in some nations may also impact some of the same turtles that forage in U.S. waters.

Along the Texas coast, the number one cause of sea turtle deaths is entanglement in shrimp nets. The Texas coastline is the only area in the United States where Kemp's ridley sea turtles, the most endangered sea turtles in the world, are known to nest.

Last year, the Sea Turtle Restoration Project won a victory when the Texas government announced a partial closure of the shrimp fishery along 100 miles of Texas coastline, including the Kemp's ridley nesting sites.

"Governor George Bush did react to public pressure, and although we did not get everything we wanted in Texas, we did make progress," said Todd Steiner, director of Sea Turtle Restoration Project.

The state opted to ban shrimping in state waters up to five miles offshore of the 100 mile stretch, during the months of December to May. The Project had pushed for a year round closure of waters extending 12 miles from shore - a proposal the state had initially supported.

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Shrimp boat coming home
Steiner says industry pressure prompted the state to adopt the reduced protections just days before a vote and final public hearing on the proposed closure. But the group still considers the partial closure a victory.

"If you had asked us several years ago how successful we could be in Texas, we really didn't know," Steiner said. "Texas has some of the worst wildlife protection laws in the nation. So we believe that we did make significant progress."

The Project is "willing to give the new rules a chance," Steiner said, but noted that success will depend on how well the rules are enforced. "It's one thing to say you're going to draw a line on a map, and it's another to ensure that there's adequate enforcement."

The Project hopes to be even more successful on the national level, where it can draw on a wider population likely to be more sympathetic to the sea turtles' cause that the audience it finds in Texas. Steiner also hopes that Bush will listen to Americans' desire for stronger sea turtle protections.

"We know he's a savvy enough politician to understand the importance of endangered species in general, and sea turtles in particular," Steiner said. "We are going to be watching very, very carefully" to see whether Bush will support federal efforts to protect sea turtles.

"And our attorneys are ready to move forward if we don't see some positive action," he warned.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has already initiated or re-initiated formal consultation on several fisheries which kill sea turtles, including the monkfish, spiny dogfish, lobster, tilefish and shrimp fisheries. The agency is developing a strategic plan and a schedule to address remaining fishery management plans.

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Dead sea turtle entangled in fishing net
"We are actively committed to working with industry, academic, and environmental representatives, and with the international community to seek solutions to sea turtle interactions through a comprehensive approach to address all sources of sea turtle mortality in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico," said the NMFS's Hogarth.

"Success in protecting sea turtles will depend on this active dialogue to exchange information on populations of sea turtles in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico and on developing innovative technologies and operational solutions to minimizing interactions in state and federal waters," Hogarth said.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is organizing workshops to exchange the latest information on strandings and seek solutions to reduce sea turtle interactions. The agency plans to hold a series of regional, state and multi-state meetings over the next few months to discuss possible solutions to reduce sea turtle interactions.

One workshop held earlier this month with industry, academic and environmental representatives, focused on finding possible solutions to reduce sea turtle interactions with longline gear.

The federal agency partnered with the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries and North Carolina Sea Grant to sponsor another turtle workshop held Thursday in New Bern, North Carolina.

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Shrimp boats at the wharf in Biloxi, Mississippi on the Gulf of Mexico. Arrow points to turtle excluder device that allows netted sea turtles to escape unharmed.
As part of its spring meeting, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a multi-state agency that coordinates state fishery management issues, will discuss the status of sea turtle populations to generate possible solutions to reduce sea turtle interactions with fishing gear.

And the fisheries service will hold a comprehensive public workshop later this spring to discuss the status of Atlantic sea turtle populations, cumulative impacts, and to generate ideas on solving problems with fishing gear interactions.

For now, the Sea Turtle Restoration Project remains optimistic that President Bush and the NMFS will support solutions like marine protected areas, limits on the number of turtles a fishery can kill accidentally before it is shut down, and increased use of independent observers on fishing vessels.

"Administrations come and go. Luckily we have a strong Endangered Species Act, we have the same tools we had before," Steiner noted. "And political pressure works the same on Democrats and Republicans - from both sides, from industry and from environmentalists."