Of turtles and shrimp

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March 1, 2017
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Five years have passed since I sat in a helicopter hovering over Key West, on a day when powerful sport boats were set to race in the beautiful blue-green waters surrounding the island, splitting the air with the roar of engines and quickening spectator pulses.

I was invited by Richie Moretti, who operates The Turtle Hospital in the Keys, who has done more to aid turtles than perhaps anyone in the world. On this day of the speedboat races his mission was to circle the waters with the chopper for two hours preceding and during the event itself, keeping a sharp eye out for turtles, dolphins or manatees in the clear, clean waters. If one of the protected critters was seen during the race, all would have to cease until it cleared the area, to avoid the potential of its injury or death.

It was about 20 minutes before the start of the race and Richie sounded the alert through the mike on his green aircraft headset. There below the chopper was a pinpoint in the water, a sea turtle just below the surface, blithely turtling along, unmindful of the mortal potential from the racing vessels that idled all around.

Nothing is done in these circumstances to alter the turtle’s behavior. Everything just has to hold up until the turtle leaves the area. This particular turtle didn’t seem in much of a hurry to do that, and so the racers waited and the crowds on different piers and bulkheads waited, and the helicopter circled.

The chopper patrol costs race organizers anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 per year, and they shoulder the expense without grudge or complaint. To Richie, the precaution is of major importance. An adult turtle can lay enough eggs in a lifetime for a serious potential for damage to the species if its life ends early, according to Richie.

In this instance the turtle paddled and floated for about 45 minutes, finally entering waters near the Westin Hotel, off the race course, and beyond the 300 foot safety margin.

Richie surmised that the reptile may have decided it was time for a mojito.

The race began.

Here in the Bayou Region we don’t have boat races. But we have a lot of boats that catch shrimp, and a lot of families that operate and man them, and with the economy being what it is these folks need all the help they can get.

That’s not a concern to folks at Oceana, one of the biggest ocean advocacy organizations in existence. The group has alleged in court filings that 50,000 turtles a year die in U.S. waters as a result of inadequate federal regulation of the fishing industry. A settlement of a legal action has resulted in a proposal of new regulations by NOAA Fisheries. It has not been well received here.

NOAA itself admits that proposals for all shrimping vessels with some few exceptions to place turtle excluder devices in their nets would result in more than half of the small, part time shrimping fleet in the Gulf going out of business.

At the forefront of the fight against the new regulations is the Louisiana Shrimp Association, which is undertaking a legal action of its own. Among the arrows LSA has in its quiver is well-established evidence that a spike in turtle strandings in 2011 was overwhelmingly more likely due to the BP oil spill than any interactions with shrimp vessels.

What smaller shrimp vessels have been doing is adhering to tow times that allow them to check and see if turtles are caught up in their nets. The tow-time solution has scientific basis in fact so far as effectiveness is concerned.

A comment period established by NOAA recently resulted in an overwhelming response from people convinced that greater restrictions should be placed on small shrimp boats.

That turtles are magnificent creatures requiring protection whenever possible is beyond argument. The devotion to turtle well-being people like Richie Moretti, the guy I sat in the helicopter with, continue expending on behalf of the turtles is a good thing. But painting of the shrimp industry with too broad a brush should not be the preferred method of reaching protection goals.

The LSA has done an admirable job of representing shrimper interests and local fishermen need to make sure that they keep abreast of what’s going on. Their web site is louisianashrimp.org.

Shrimpers need to stay in touch with this group, and keep informed. It’s the only way their united voice can have hope of being heard.