From dolphins to turtles, Earth Island makes waves

Public opinion has helped save dolphins. Can it work for sea turtles as well?

by Alice Martinez
ycatch is a problem in other fisheries too. A thousand times more turtles are killed in shrimping than are killed in dolphin-tuna fishing. Every year, approximately 155,000 sea turtles drown, entangled in shrimp nets. Six of the world's seven species of sea turtles are now listed as endangered. Shrimp trawling, the most wasteful fishery in the world, destroys billions of pounds of non-target species annually. Earth Island Institute, the folks who brought graphic footage of dolphin kills to the forefront, have begun to apply their efforts to force shrimp fisheries of the world to change their practices. Whether in restaurants, on boats or in the courts, EII is working all the angles.
On January 5, 1996, Judge Thomas Aquilino of the United States Court of International Trade (CIT) directed the Secretaries of State, Treasury and Commerce (defendants) "to prohibit not later than May 1, 1996 the importation of shrimp or products of shrimp whereever harvested in the wild with commercial fishing technology which may affect adversely those species of sea turtles . . ."
The ruling on the lawsuit brought by EII, the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Sierra Club, compels the State Department to ban the importation of shrimp into the United States from all nations that have not reduced sea turtle mortality from shrimp fishing operations by 97 percent, the level that can be achieved by the proper use of "TEDs" (Turtle Excluder Devices) on all vessels.
Jack d'Antignac, U.S. shrimper and President of the Georgia Fisherman's Association points out: "We have been using TEDs and protecting sea turtles even before their use became mandatory in the United States. Foreign countries not using TEDs are willfully killing sea turtles. It's way past time that shrimpers from all countries start using them in order to preserve our shared marine environment. Shrimp trawlers owned by the Georgia Fisherman's Association members have been using TEDs without exception, although there is an initial expense. The relatively small loss of shrimp caused by TEDs is more than compensated for by the improved quality of our catch. TEDs save turtles, reduce the unnecessary killing of countless fish, and protect the marine environment on which we all depend. It will be easy enough for other countries to adopt the use of TEDs, if they have the sincere desire to do so."
And while EII is calling it "one of the greatest conservation victories for sea turtles," others are saying it's too soon to tell. The suit is being appealed and shrimp processors have been burning up the phones to Congress. And while EII's tactics were ultimately a part of consumers causing canners to give-in to dolphin-safe, the dynamics of getting to "turtle-safe" both in the fisheries and politically are considerably more difficult.
There were really never more than 100 tuna boats and 12 countries involved in the tuna-dolphin wars. Currently, in the U.S. alone there are 25,000 shrimp boats and 45-50 countries are involved in shrimp exports to the United States with turtles as part of the bycatch. Conservationists working with sea turtle groups and fisheries worldwide are concerned that using U.S. law to try to mandate changes creates backlash and resentment, in addition to just having the market move elsewhere as was also the case with dolphin and tuna. And depending on the reaction of Congress, insiders expect to see another showdown with GATT.
At the same time as applying legal pressure, EII is working to provide U.S. shrimp consumers a new option. Just as public demand for dolphin-safe tuna forced the reform of the tuna-fishing industry, EII's Sea Turtle Restoration Project (STRP) hopes that its new Turtle-Safe Shrimp program will help reform the shrimping industry.
The Turtle-Safe program certifies shrimp fishers who use TEDs. Turtle-Safe offers a positive "buycott" approach that rewards shrimpers who are doing the right thing and motivates the rest of the shrimp fleet to follow their lead.
TEDs are cheap and easy to use. A slanted metal grid sewn into the end of a shrimp net guides sea turtles out an escape hatch, while the shrimp drift through the grid and are retained in the net. TEDs are not only 97 percent effective in saving sea turtles, but they also reduce incidental capture of other fish and marine organisms, known as "by-catch." For every pound of shrimp harvested without TEDs, ten pounds of bycatch are thrown overboard, mostly dead. Fishers using TEDs spend less time separating shrimp from bycatch, and the ocean ecosystem benefits from a better-targeted fishery. Still, some shrimpers refuse to use the devices or deliberately render them ineffective by sewing the escape hatch closed.
Until now, there has been no way to tell which shrimp was caught without killing sea turtles. That uncertainty can change when STRP's new Turtle-Safe logo begins appearing on shrimp products caught by fishers who have agreed to use TEDs and to have their operations monitored by Earth Island observers.
STRP does not certify shrimp raised on shrimp farms, however, since shrimp farming can destroy habitat, pollute water and may spread diseases to wild shrimp populations. Only wild-caught shrimp from US boats will be certified as Turtle-Safe. In the future, STRP plans to expand the program to include international shrimp fishers. Of the 50 countries that supply 'turtle-tainted' shrimp to the US market, only 12 have laws requiring TED use and compliance with such laws is not being monitored.
Boone Seafood of Darien, Georgia, is the first shrimper to have all of its boat captains and owners sign Turtle-Safe agreements. Boone's Turtle-Safe shrimp is now available in fine restaurants in the San Francisco area and in food stores in Boston, with new outlets being added every month. STRP has launched a major public education campaign to increase the demand for Turtle-Safe shrimp. The project seeks committed individuals and groups to help get Turtle-Safe shrimp into restaurants and food stores across the nation. If you'd like to help in this project locally, contact San Diego Earth Day at 272-7370.

Earth Island Journal is published quarterly by EII, 300 Broadway, Suite 28, San Francisco, CA 94133. Phone: (415) 788-3666.