Ocean conservation group sues to make all shrimpers use turtle protection devices

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NEW ORLEANS — A conservation group has sued to make all shrimp nets include escape hatches to let sea turtles swim free.

The government estimated in 2012 and 2014 that as many as 527,500 sea turtles get caught in shrimp nets every year and up to 53,600 of them die, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday by Oceana.

"If people knew that their order of shrimp cocktail came with a side of government-authorized sea turtle, they would be horrified," Oceana assistant general counsel Eric Bilsky said in a news release.

The group also wants the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries arm to set a limit on the number of sea turtles that may legally be killed each year in Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic shrimp trawls, and to strengthen enforcement.

NOAA Fisheries does not comment on pending litigation, spokeswoman Allison Garrett said in an email.

All species of sea turtles found in U.S. waters are endangered or threatened.

There are some exemptions to rules requiring the nets, which have a metal grate across a narrow part of the net. Shrimp easily pass through, authorities say, while turtles are directed to an opening at the net's top or bottom.

Oceana wants the exemptions canceled.

Shrimpers say they follow the rules and never pull up turtles. Some have accused NOAA Fisheries of faking data to blame them for turtle deaths.

Oceana marine scientist Amanda Keledjian said NOAA Fisheries needs to put more people onto shrimp boats, to enforce regulations and to get an accurate turtle count. She said the agency's estimates stress that they're based on "highly uncertain" data.

Hundreds of dead sea turtles were found from 2010 through 2012; those still in shape for dissection in the first two years had drowned, probably in shrimp nets, conservation groups said.

Keledjian said the Gulf and Atlantic shrimpers are estimated to kill more sea turtles than any other fishery but has very little monitoring compared to those others.

She said the group wants the same strong management and good analysis that the fisheries service has shown in other areas and species.

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