Endangered sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico may face more dangers from fishing operations than the BP oil spill, according to an essay published Wednesday in the Miami Herald.
Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, writes that marine biologists initially feared that the Deepwater Horizon disaster would be catastrophic for sea turtles in the Gulf. Populations were already dwindling from years of unrestrained hunting, coastal development, fishing, and pollution, and the crisis occurred just in time for the nesting season of loggerhead and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles.
But researchers were surprised to find that most of the sea turtles found dead during the oil spill were killed by fishing operations.
NOAA, the Gulf states, and several nonprofit organizations worked to de-oil and rehabilitate over 400 turtles. 96 percent were successfully released back into the wild. The teams also relocated 25,000 eggs from heavily oiled coastlines to safer waters.
But necropsies on the 600 dead sea turtles determined that the majority appear to have drowned in fishing gear.
“When NOAA became aware that a large number of stranded turtles may have drowned in fishing operations, we alerted state marine resource officials,” Lubchenco writes. “In response, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources issued a rule in June to further restrict the time shrimp skimmer trawls could be towed to help prevent sea turtles from being caught and drowning.”
Lubchenco advised that fishermen be required to use devices that allow turtles to escape from skimmer trawls, called turtle excluder devices, or TEDs.
“The heightened scrutiny of the Gulf of Mexico during the oil spill brought to light the need for stronger cooperation between NOAA, the Gulf states, and the fishing industry to address the significant ongoing problem of sea turtles drowning in fishing operations. More enforcement is needed for TED requirements and tow time limits,” Lubchenco concluded.