Gulf of Mexico shrimp FIPs help to protect sea turtles

The vibrant Gulf of Mexico American shrimp fisheries have been the subject of several FIPs for many years now, and one of the most notable positive results is the change in bycatch levels, particularly for sea turtles.

For many years, one of environmentalists’ biggest concerns with the fisheries was the large number of turtles being caught in the long, tubular shrimp nets. The simplest solution to the problem was to make sure all fisheries were properly using turtle excluder devices (TEDs) at the entrances to the nets to allow turtles to escape.

While the US government already had regulations on the books mandating the use of TEDs, some net shops had improperly installed TEDs or nets had stretched such that the TEDs were no longer at the proper angles to maximize turtle escapement. When the scope of this issue became clear in 2011, the existing Texas Shrimp FIP added a new workplan activity to ensure that properly installing TEDs and similar bycatch mitigation devices was a primary goal.

Other FIPs followed, including one for pink shrimp in Florida, and others for multi-species shrimp in Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi, as well as brown and white shrimp in Louisiana. To date, all of these FIPs, whether or not SFP is still involved, include provisions that shrimpers have their gear inspected by an expert on an annual basis to ensure proper installation of TEDs and related devices.

Buyers and other industrial stakeholders are not the only parties interested in seeing the TEDs put to use. After inspections revealed problems with TEDs being installed improperly, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began evaluating the impact of the shrimp fishery on the sea turtle population by measuring the fleet’s compliance with TED installation requirements and, from that, estimating the capture rate of sea turtles that come in contact with shrimp nets. If at least 88 percent of sea turtles that come in contact with shrimp nets are likely to be able to immediately escape, the fleet is judged to be in compliance with TED regulations. In order to help the fleet meet these new standards, NOAA increased efforts in a “courtesy check” system, where vessel owners are encouraged to request NOAA inspectors to come and confirm that the vessels are compliant with the law. 

While NOAA had been offering this service for a long time, mistrust of any government authority often deterred shrimpers from making such a request, but when buyers started requesting participation in these courtesy checks or similar gear evaluations throughout the six shrimp FIPs in the region, many more shrimpers responded to the opportunity.  

“This is an example of how supply chain leverage can reinforce and even expand on existing government efforts,” said Megan Westmeyer, Fishery Improvement Analyst at SFP. “I’m pretty confident saying that many of these vessels would not have done the courtesy checks if their buyers hadn’t been asking for it.”

These efforts are producing results. According to a report by NOAA and the US National Marine Fisheries Service, data from April 2014 to December 2016 shows progress: While sea turtle capture rates for the first two years of the program (June 2012–June 2014) often exceeded thresholds, since then the turtle capture rate was above the threshold during only two months (August 2014 and April 2015), but just barely. Throughout the rest of the period, the level of compliance has gone up, driving the estimated sea turtle capture rate down.

SFP’s FishSource database provides an extensive analysis of brown, white, and pink shrimp otter trawl fisheries in the Gulf and, as of May 2017, its analysis acknowledges these positive results regarding use of TEDs.