LAFITTE, La. | Efforts to protect endangered sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico have prompted strenuous complaints from the dwindling fleet of shrimpers blamed for drowning them in their nets who say their own livelihoods are threatened.
By March, the federal government wants about 2,435 shrimp boats — most run by mom-and-pop operations — to install turtle-saving gear in their nets to protect the Kemp’s ridley turtles, whose survival has gained renewed concern after BP’s catastrophic 2010 Gulf oil spill. The spill prompted closer study of turtle deaths, though scientists have concluded that most were caused by drowning, most likely in nets, and not effects of the oil spill.
Fishermen say the gear will cause them to lose shrimp, cut into their paltry profits and drive their waning industry into an even deeper hole. The fishermen also insist the new gear is unnecessary because they hardly ever catch turtles.
The gear already is required for trawlers in federal waters. The new rule would apply to nets used in state waters, closer to shore, where many shrimpers operate.
“These people are trying to put us out of work and put us on the food stamp line,” said Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association.
Fishermen feel like they can’t catch a break. Imports of cheap farm-raised shrimp, hurricanes, high fuel prices and the oil spill have driven about 4,000 boats off the water in Louisiana over the past decade. The number of commercial shrimpers is declining elsewhere, too.
The new measures are meant to protect turtles — especially the endangered Kemp’s ridley turtle. Weighing 100 pounds and measuring 2 feet in length as adults, they are considered the world’s smallest marine turtles.
Since the 1980s, Mexico and the United States have partnered to bring the species back from the brink of extinction. After the BP oil spill began, scientists along the Gulf Coast rushed to collect Kemp’s ridley and loggerhead turtle eggs from beach nests for incubation in Florida with the intent of releasing hatchlings in the safer waters of the Atlantic. Mexico also has taken measures to protect beach nesting areas and hatchlings.
Earlier this year, the National Marine Fisheries Service — under pressure by environmental lawsuits — said it would develop rules to make nearly every commercial shrimper along the Gulf and South Atlantic install in nets the grill-like apparatus called a “turtle excluder device” to propel ensnared turtles to freedom.
Shrimpers are sour and angry at the prospect.
“The net is like a giant funnel and, as it funnels down, right when it gets to the point like that of a bottle you install the [excluder],” netmaker Robert Boudreaux said at his shop in Lafitte. “You’re not dragging in a swimming pool where everything’s clean. You’re dragging in water with trash and debris. Debris comes in there, jams in the [extruder], and then shoots out your shrimp!”