Texas Sea Turtles
A Record Year
A record 450 dead or disabled stranded sea turtles washed up on Texas beaches in 1999, 95 of them endangered Kemp's ridleys.(1) Since Governor Bush took office in 1994, 2,744 sea turtles have
been stranded. Between 1980 and 1999, over 5,000 sea turtles, including 1,811 Kemp's ridley were found dead or disabled on Texas beaches. A staggering 90% of those found were dead when discovered (2) - some of which had been mutilated or shot. The Kemp's ridley, the most severely endangered sea turtle species, now numbers fewer than 2,000 females, down from over 40,000 recorded in 1947. (3)
What's Killing The Turtles?
Most sea turtle biologists believe that shrimp boats and fishing methods account for the great majority of sea turtle deaths in Texas.(4) Shrimping activity has increased 400% in Texas bays and 95% in adjacent gulf waters since 1961.(5) Sea turtles die when struck by
boats, or drown in trawl nets. These risks increase when sea turtles converge to feed on the by-catch discarded by shrimping boats.
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Risks of lethal encounters with shrimping vessels also increase when shrimping activity intensifies in nearshore waters where sea turtles congregate to feed and mate. Sea turtle strandings closely track the timing of the annual shrimping season, increasing during the commercial shrimping season from February 2nd to May 14th and between July 16th to December 15th.(6) Predictably, strandings decrease during the mid-season closure between May 15th to July 15th. See the 1999 Turtle Strandings graph.
Undercover Investigation Uncovers Illegal Activity
A 1997, the Humane Society of the Untied States (HSUS) conducted an undercover investigation on Texas shrimp fishers. In their investigation, a report copy of which was sent to Texas Governor George W. Bush, they found that illegal shrimpers easily evaded detection by monitoring law enforcement communications. Shrimpers are required by law to use Turtle Excluder Devices, called TEDs, to protect sea turtles from drowning in the trawl nets used by commercial operations. (7) A total of 13 of 32 (41%) vessels examined by Humane Society undercover agents had illegally disabled their turtle protection devices. (8) The HSUS report concluded "Such blatant disregard for the use of the turtle protecting devices suggests to us that enforcement procedures are not effective and the shrimpers ignore the regulations without fear of regulation." In particular, the report emphasized the need of "an element of surprise" in inspections, and more severe penalties for violations of the TED law, and creation of nearshore safe zones where commercial shrimping is prohibited.
A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Protected Resources Enforcement Team (PRET) has independently confirmed that disregard for turtle protection devices was actually far greater than detected via less intensive inspections. (9) In 1999, PRET crews warned or cited 23% of 308 vessels for noncompliance. (10) Unfortunately for the turtles, PRET surprise inspections declined abruptly in October of 1999 as a result of budget cuts to their program. (11)
Continued Opposition by Industry
Despite strong evidence that shrimping is largely responsible for the sea turtle deaths, some shrimpers continue to dispute claims that TEDs are necessary and they blame the devices for reduced catches and related economic problems. Saying that most shrimpers comply with the TEDs law, Texas Shrimpers Association Executive Director, Wilma Anderson, claims that "98 to 99 percent compliance" by Texas shrimpers shows that "shrimpers should not be blamed for most of the deaths".(12)
Gov. Bush and State Agency Side With Industry
During the same period in 1999 when the Protected Resources Enforcement Team cited 23% of inspected vessels for noncompliance, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department claimed a non-compliance rate of only 5% despite being aware of the findings of the Humane Society undercover investigation. In a letter to the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, Gov. Bush ignored the massive number of turtle deaths and refused to create a marine reserve off Padre Island. He instead lauded state enforcement efforts even though his office had been notified of their ineffectiveness. In an April, 1998 press release, Texas Resource Protection Division Director, Larry McKinney attempted to shift some the blame for sea turtle deaths to "weather patterns, natural disease and predation and other factors . . .." Parks and Wildlife Coastal Fisheries Policy Director, Hal Osburn, presented a clearer perspective: "The Texas shrimp industry is the most valuable commercial fishing industry we have."
A Public Call for Action
Mounting turtle deaths and lack of meaningful state enforcement have prompted repeated protests. The Humane Society of the United States (13) , the Sea Turtle Restoration Project (14) , and Help Endangered Animals-Ridley's Turtles (HEART) (15), have jointly petitioned the United States Coast Guard to end shrimping in a 17 mile wide zone off the coast of Padre Island. (16)
This proposal would eliminate the principal cause of death for five sea turtle species, all either endangered or threatened under U.S. Law. A similar proposal submitted by the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club has called for year-round closure along the entire Texas coast out to a depth of seven fathoms, and a breeding season closure (March 1 - August 31) along Padre Island National Seashore. (17)
State, National, and International Support
Major Texas newspapers have called for exclusion of commercial shrimpers from shallower waters coinciding with sea turtle nesting areas. More recently, an international coalition of 700 scientists from 30 countries passed a resolution calling for creation of a Kemp's ridley marine reserve for sea turtles along North and South Padre Island. (18)
Creation of nearshore safe zones in Mexico has caused steady population increases in the only surviving Kemp's ridley nesting area located just south of Brownsville, Texas. With Texas nearshore waters now claiming the majority of dead or disabled turtles recorded from the United States, creating nearshore safe zones in Texas will insure the survival of Kemp's ridley and other sea turtle species. Whether Texas government will support any effective conservation measures in face of strong industry opposition remains to be seen.
Join us soon for another stop on the Texas Toxic Tour.
- Stranding report for the gulf coast, Help Endangered Animals - Ridley Turtles (HEART) web site.
- D.J. Shaver. 1998. Sea Turtle strandings along the Texas Coast, 1980-1994. Pp. 57-72 in R. Zimmerman, ed. Characteristics and causes of Texas marine strandings. U.S. Dept. Commer. NOAA Tech. Rep. NMFS 143, 85 p.
- H.H. Hildebrand. 1982. A historical review of the status of sea turtle populations in the western Gulf of Mexico. Pp. 447-453 in K.A. Bjorndal, ed. Biology and Conservation of Sea Turtles, Revised 1995 Edition. Smithsonian Inst. Press, Washington.
- See review by D.J. Shaver. 1998. Op cit.
- Current Status of the Shrimp Fishery, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Fact sheet.
- Shrimp Regulations, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
- Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs)
- Humane Society of United States Undercover Investigation
- NOAA Southeast Enforcement, Protected Resources Enforcement Team web site.
- TED Compliance Project, Protected Resources Enforcement Team (PRET) National Marine Fisheries Service
- NOAA Finds 25 Per Cent Non TED Compliance, But Budget May Be Cut! HEART Newsletter 2000.
- April 26, 1999. Sea Turtle Strandings increase, shrimpers deny blame. Abilene Reporter News.
- The Humane Society of
the United States (HSUS) Calling for a 17-mile-wide safety zone for sea turtles.
- Sea Turtle Restoration Project (STRP)
- Help Endangered Animals - Ridley Turtles (HEART)
- Humane Society of the United States Petition to Establish Sea Turtle Safety Zone
- Lonestar Chapter, Sierra Club, Action Alert. February 14, 2000.
Help protect endangered sea turtles.
- PLOTKIN, P. 1999 Resolutions of the Participants at the 19th Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation. Marine Turtle Newsletter No 85