Recent Surge in Sea Turtle Deaths Prompts Lawsuit

With sea turtle deaths in the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Atlantic spiking to levels not seen in recent decades, conservation groups last week filed a legal complaint that would force the National Marine Fisheries Service to strengthen protection for the endangered turtles.

The Fisheries Service has linked these “strandings” to drowning in shrimp fishing nets. Despite this rise in sea turtle strandings and the devastating impacts of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, the conservation groups say the agency has not fulfilled its duty to protect the imperiled animals from harm.

Recent federal reports show the number of drownings in the Gulf alone likely exceeds the allowable take for the Gulf and Atlantic shrimp fisheries combined, and also indicate significant noncompliance with existing regulations. The lawsuit aims to force the Fisheries Service to complete the required studies and adopt interim measures to protect turtles.

“Sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico are still reeling from the impacts of last year’s oil spill, and they simply can’t withstand the chronic threat of drowning in shrimp nets,” said Jacyln Lopez, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The government’s own data show that record numbers of sea turtles have perished in the Gulf of Mexico this year, yet the Fisheries Service has not taken protective measures to prevent sea turtles from dying in the shrimp-trawl fishery.”

The Endangered Species Act requires the Fisheries Service to ensure that its actions do not jeopardize the continued existence of endangered species and to respond to evidence of new threats to their survival. The lawsuit challenges the agency’s failure to protect sea turtles in the wake of a huge increase in strandings and seeks to establish protections for the turtles, including increased enforcement and observer coverage to reduce turtle deaths from shrimp trawls; closure of sensitive areas to shrimp trawling; and broader requirements for shrimp boats to use turtle-excluder devices to allow turtles to escape drowning in all types of trawl gear.

Conservation groups filing the suit include the Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island Restoration Network, Defenders of Wildlife, and Sea Turtle Conservancy.

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