- Associated Press - Thursday, December 15, 2016

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - More shrimp fishermen would have to use nets equipped with turtle escape hatches, to prevent sea turtle deaths, under proposed new federal rules released on Thursday.

The National Marine Fisheries Service wants to require more shrimp fishermen to use “turtle excluder devices.” The devices are metal grates that allow turtles to escape the boats’ nets.

The new rules would apply mostly in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, home to a major part of America’s largest shrimp fishery in the Gulf of Mexico.

“This will allow the fishery to continue to operate and produce seafood, and it will aid our path down the recovery of the sea turtle population,” said Roy Crabtree, Southeast regional administrator for the fisheries service.

Shrimp fishermen, many of whom are already subject to similar rules, have long been preparing for more turtle protections, said Acy Cooper, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association. He said his association wants to scrutinize the proposal before taking a position on it.

Cooper and others in the shrimp business have voiced concerns that the turtle excluder devices could be difficult to operate safely on smaller boats that work in inshore waters.

“We know it’s coming, it’s just a matter of time,” Cooper said. “We want to make sure it doesn’t affect the guys, and we also want to make sure of the safety aspect of it.”

Thursday was the deadline for the federal government to propose regulations to protect turtles under a settlement with the conservation nonprofit Oceana. The proposal will be subject to a public comment process through mid-February.

Oceana sued the government in April 2015, arguing that the government estimates more than 500,000 sea turtles get caught in shrimp nets each year, and more than 53,000 of them die.

The group said Thursday that new rules would save as many as 2,500 endangered and threatened sea turtles every year by extending the requirement of turtle excluder devices to about 5,800 boats currently exempted from using them.

Oceana campaign director Lora Snyder called the rules “decades in the making” and cited the growing number of restaurants that refuse to sell unsustainable seafood as evidence that it’s also a smart business move.

The rules “would dramatically improve the survival and recovery prospects of sea turtle populations, as well as protect the livelihoods of thousands of American shrimp fishermen who lose markets and profits due to the ‘red-listing’ of their products,” she said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agreed in September to draw up new rules for turtle excluder devices: metal bars set 4 inches apart on a vertical slant to deflect anything bigger to an opening at the top of the net.

Those are currently required only on the most common shrimp nets, mesh funnels known as otter trawls that are generally used offshore. There are three other kinds of shrimp trawls for shallower water.

The second-most-used are called skimmer nets. The other kinds include one called wing nets or butterfly trawls; and another called pusher-head trawls or chopstick rigs.

Shrimpers using any of those nets don’t currently have to use turtle excluder devices if they empty their nets after 55 minutes of trawling. Otter trawls may be pulled for hours.

Oceana also wants the bars required on all shrimp trawls and reduced from 4-inch to 3-inch openings, to protect smaller baby turtles.

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Whittle reported from Portland, Maine.

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