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Stung by US Tuna Ban, Mexico Protects Turtles

ALREADY enmeshed in a United States tuna embargo to save dolphins, Mexico is taking steps to prevent its shrimp trawlers from being snared by a similar US law protecting sea turtles.

Mexico and 13 other Central and South American nations are following the lead of US shrimpers who, since 1989, have been required to use Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs). TEDs are trap doors that are attached to the shrimp fishing nets and reduce the "by-catch" of sea turtles and other fish by 97 percent.

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But the San Francisco-based ecology group that spearheaded the tuna embargo effort has also filed a lawsuit to force the Bush administration to enforce the sea turtle protection law more widely. Earth Island Institute says US law requires another 65 nations to reduce their sea turtle kill (estimated at 155,000 annually) or face a US embargo. The top shrimp exporters to the US are India, Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico, Malaysia, Korea, and Japan.

Fisherman interviewed here at Mexico's major shrimp fishing port were not thrilled with TEDs. Tests of the $50-to-$400 devices have just been completed on 55 different vessels.

"One of our captains came back angry because he could see shrimp spilling out of the excluder device," says Francisco Perez Martinez, manager of a shrimp processing plant that exports to the US.

Charles Oravitz, coordinator of the TEDs international assistance program of the US National Marine Fisheries Service allows: "TEDs are not perfect. But they are the best technological solution we have now to catch shrimp and conserve sea turtles." Studies by the Fisheries Service over the last 15 years show that when TEDs are used correctly, there is no significant statistical difference in the shrimp catch.

A spokesman for the government fishery agency says Mexico will begin using TEDs nationwide once the tests determine which TEDs work best.

"If Mexico follows through with what they say, they'll be world leaders in the use of turtle excluders," says Todd Steiner of Earth Island Institute.

President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is working hard to repair his pro-environment image since the US banned Mexican tuna last year. US law requires an embargo against countries whose dolphin kill rate exceeds a set level. Mexico is taking steps to reduce its dolphin kill, and officials at the conference said they expect the US tuna embargo to be lifted by a change in US law in 1993.

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OF the 14 nations and territories participating in the US-funded TED training programs, all but one, French Guiana, have committed to using TEDs on all boats by May 1994. The US State Department argues that extending the law beyond the areas where US shrimp trawlers work would be unfair.

"It could effect shrimp imports from more than 80 nations totaling as much as $1.8 billion - more than 75 percent [by value] of all shrimp consumed in this country. The impact of the resulting embargoes would be unprecedented," Secretary of State James Baker III said in a 1990 report to Congress.

Like the tuna embargo, there is opposition to widening the shrimp ban because the US is perceived as forcing its environmental laws on other nations. Indeed, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade has ruled the tuna embargo an unfair trade restriction.

Earth Island is working on a United Nations draft resolution to bring TEDs into wider use. "That way, it's not the US telling other countries what to do. It's an international effort."