State Trawl Fisheries in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico
By Marydele Donnelly
In June 2001 the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released an outline and implementation schedule for its strategic plan to reduce the accidental capture of sea turtles (known as bycatch) in numerous state and federal fisheries in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. NMFS addresses sea turtle capture in federal fisheries through consultation mandated by Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, but until now, state-managed fisheries and fisheries without a Management Plan have not been regulated. Because certain types of gear are more likely to capture sea turtles than others, the plan will address sea turtle bycatch by gear type rather than addressing specific fisheries. CCC endorses this approach and has urged NMFS to move expeditiously to develop and implement new regulations for trawl fisheries. This is a multi-step process with several opportunities for public input, including an advanced notice of rulemaking, proposed regulations, and final regulations.
For more than a year, states in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico have been compiling data to characterize trawl fisheries in their local waters (trawls are wide-mouthed nets that taper to a narrow end). Released in late 2006, the report summarizes activity by thousands of trawlers from New England to Texas. While the shrimp fishery is the best known trawl fishery in the world, U.S. fishermen also use trawls to capture many species of fish, such as butterfish and croaker. In the United States, shrimp fishermen in state and federal waters have been required to use Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) in their nets since 1992 so that turtles trapped underwater can get out of the nets before they drown. Through new regulations, NMFS will require other trawl fisheries that interact with sea turtles to use TEDs as well.
Proposed NMFS regulations would expand the use of Turtle Excluder Devices to many trawl fisheries. - NOAA/NMFS File Photo
Among the issues identified by the characterization of state trawl fisheries is the absence of state fishery observer programs. This shortcoming demonstrates that federal participation is clearly needed to regulate the numerous trawl fisheries that operate in state waters, such as increasingly popular skimmer trawls in Louisiana, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama (3,653 commercial skimmer trawl licenses were granted in Louisiana in 2004). CCC is also particularly concerned about the refusal of the State of Louisiana to implement and enforce federal TED requirements in state waters, mandated since December 4, 1992.
It has been more than five years since NMFS proposed its comprehensive strategy to reduce sea turtle bycatch in state fisheries in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, despite the repeated concern expressed by federal and state biologists and the staff of CCC and other conservation organizations. In the interim, fisheries of all kinds have taken a significant toll on sea turtles in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, and especially on loggerheads (Caretta caretta). As reported in our last issue of the Velador, years of cumulative fishing interactions have put Western Atlantic loggerheads at risk. In Florida the long-term index nesting beach data demonstrate nesting declines of more than 22.3% from 1989 through 2005 and a 39.5% decline since 1998. The subpopulation nesting in Georgia and the Carolinas also is in decline.
CCC has urged NMFS to dedicate the resources necessary to support the comprehensive strategy and work with the states to reduce sea turtle bycatch. We will closely monitor the development of new trawl regulations and provide comments as needed. With regard to the comprehensive strategy, we have asked NMFS to move forward on the characterization of other potentially disabling and fatal gear for sea turtles, such as gill nets and pot fisheries, so that it will not take another five years to begin to address problems in these fisheries.