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US Pressures Shrimpers To Save Endangered Turtles

When shrimpers skirted new law, officials sped to rescue

STEPPED-UP inspections of shrimp boats and harsh enforcement actions in some cases seem to have stopped a rash of sea turtle killings in the Gulf of Mexico.

``The news appears to have gone from bad to good,'' says Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

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If that proves false, however, the Fisheries Service has the power to close the Gulf to shrimping.

Every species of sea turtle has been classified as threatened or endangered by federal authorities. More than 11,000 a year used to drown in the fine-mesh nets used by shrimp trawlers in the Gulf.

The number of fatalities dwindled to 350 starting in 1992, when a new law required nets to be outfitted with turtle excluder devices (TEDs), Mr. Gorman says. A properly installed TED reduces the shrimp catch by just 5 percent, he adds.

Most of the thousands of shrimp-boat captains working in the Gulf comply with the law. But in early July, the number of drowned turtles washed up on Texas beaches, as counted by a network of volunteers, soared to 55.

The increase came just after the annual, two-month closure of the Gulf to shrimping to allow young shrimp to migrate from near-shore nurseries to deeper waters. The timing implicated the resumption of shrimping, Gorman says.

With only six or seven boat inspectors for the whole Texas coast, the Fisheries Service turned to the Coast Guard and the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife for help. Those agencies fielded more than a score of additional inspectors.

The inspectors boarded 188 boats and found 24 violations of the TED law. In seven cases, there was no TED or the TED had been sewn shut, Gorman says. Inspectors seized and sold the shrimp catch from those boats. The combined catches were worth $170,000. The shrimpers face administrative hearings in which they could get the money back, or could face additional fines of up to $20,000.

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By last week, sightings of drowned turtles had fallen to five. The enforcement actions ``shook up the bad boys,'' Gorman says. They ``have taken notice and started to behave.''

Gorman notes that shrimpers are ``fishing at the edge.'' Open to anyone, the business in economic terms is ``overcapitalized.''

In other words, too much competition keeps prices and profits down.

Last year the Gulf produced 206 million pounds of shrimp worth $335 million. But that is only half of United States consumption. Shrimp farms in Southeast Asia supply the rest.

Meanwhile, scientists in Florida and France last week announced finding genetic proof that loggerhead turtles on the East Coast migrate to the Mediterranean. There they are frequently killed inadvertently by commercial fishing.

Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, animal and plant life are the domain of the countries that nurture them. That means the US has jurisdiction to take action over loggerhead deaths in the Mediterranean, according to Brian Bown at the University of Florida.

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