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Local10.com, November 3, 2011

Shrimpers face fines after sea turtle operation
Dozens of Gulf shrimpers face fines after feds crack down on sea turtle gear scofflaws

By The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — In the past six months, dozens of Gulf of Mexico shrimpers were found in violation of rules requiring gear on their trawl nets to allow entangled sea turtles to swim to safety, federal agents said Thursday.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agents said they inspected 531 boats between April and October and found 59 shrimpers in violation of rules requiring special sea turtle escape hatches, known as turtle excluder devices, or TEDs. Also, agents issued 81 verbal warnings and 20 written warnings.

All sea turtles in U.S. waters are listed as either threatened or endangered. Since the catastrophic BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, regulators have been under increasing pressure to do more to protect sea turtles, which crisscross the Gulf and nest on its beaches. A rise in sea turtle deaths after the spill added to the sense of urgency.

"If a boat is rigged for shrimping, it must have a TED (turtle excluder device)," said Steve Campbell, a NOAA special agent.

Otha Easley, NOAA's acting special agent in charge for its southeast division, said enforcing the gear rule was a "high priority" for NOAA. "It lets the shrimpers keep working while saving the lives of endangered turtles," Easley said.

Agents said shrimpers who were cited simply did not have the gear on their nets or did not have the devices installed properly. The safety devices are required by the Endangered Species Act. Turtles often drown when they can't escape nets.

NOAA's lawyers said they had issued 34 notices of violation to shrimpers. Issuing a notice of violation is an important step in seeking to fine a shrimper, Campbell said. The agency declined to disclose the names of shrimpers facing fines, saying the shrimpers had 30 days to respond to the notices.

The fines in these cases could range from $2,500 to $23,000 based on how many violations the shrimpers were cited for and whether they were repeat offenders.

Since January, 468 sea turtles have been found dead along the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coasts, NOAA said. The crackdown on shrimpers was prompted by concerns that the spike in turtle deaths was linked to the shrimp industry, a link shrimpers deny. In August, federal marine biologists said many turtles were dying during periods when shrimpers were not working, a finding that vindicated shrimpers' arguments.

Clint Guidry, the head of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, said NOAA's move to go after shrimpers was wrongheaded. His group represents fishermen.

"I think they're going after the wrong guys," he said. "Most fishermen don't agree with the regulations."

Not all shrimpers agree with that sentiment. John Williams, the head of the Southern Shrimp Alliance, a group of fishermen, processors and distributors, applauded the crackdown and said shrimpers who violate sea turtle gear rules "put a black mark" on the industry.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, don't believe NOAA is doing enough — not even after a crackdown like the one taking place this year.

"Unless shrimpers are forced to pay sizable fines, they will continue to break the law and kill sea turtles," said Chris Pincetich of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project in California. He questioned whether NOAA would keep the pressure on shrimpers. "What's really needed is permanent changes," he said, "not just a reactive policy to sea turtle carnage. I think that's what is happening this year."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton