BILOXI -- NOAA Fisheries has data that shows Gulf shrimpers are now using their turtle-protection devices.
Partly because of this, the agency has decided not to impose emergency measures on the shrimping industry in order to stop the unusually high number of sea-turtle deaths in the northern Gulf since the BP oil spill in 2010.
For one thing, the biggest spike in sea turtle deaths this year came in April, a month before the shrimp season opened.
A spokeswoman for the shrimping industry called it “an absolute victory.”
Local shrimper Frank Parker said, “It means we’re off the hook for a little bit.”
And environmentalists said it’s an encouraging sign, but not the end of the issue.
The number of turtle deaths in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana shot up dramatically after the spill to more than 1,000 -- 443 of them this year. But NOAA had said the deaths were more consistent with drowning in a shrimp net than oil poisoning.
A group of environmental organizations that includes Turtle Island Restoration Network, Sea Turtle Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center For Biological Diversity threatened to sue if NOAA didn’t take emergency action to stop the deaths.
They used NOAA’s inspection and boarding numbers to show shrimpers weren’t making an effort to protect turtles. They showed shrimpers running with no protection or non-functioning turtle excluder devices in their nets.
But in a letter last week, NOAA said it decided to deny the group’s request for emergency action. NOAA said inspection data now shows as many as 87 percent of shrimpers in some areas complying with the use of turtle excluder devices.
The group called for emergency action that would have included ramping up requirements on shrimp boats, increasing inspections for turtle excluder devices, closing areas to shrimping and a look at the oil spill’s impact on the animals.
Teri Shore with Turtle Island said, “We remain concerned that not all shrimp trawls are required to use turtle excluder devices.”
She said the issue needs a more holistic approach that includes consistent and coordinated times when waters of the Gulf are open to shrimping.
Michael Barnette with NOAA said that while the agency did not create emergency measures, it is still looking into the issue in a more formal way, through an environmental impact study that requires comments and long-term study.
Deborah Long, with the Southern Shrimp Alliance, said even that is fairer than imposing emergency measures.
“This stops the short-term threat for the industry,” Long said. “They can’t use an emergency protocol to bypass a vetted regulatory process. It allows both sides to participate with more time for input.”
She said that the alliance took the issue head-on when NOAA began considering emergency regulations. It set up workshops along with state agencies and made sure shrimpers understood the importance of the devices and how to use them and had great success, she said.
She said that because of the effort, shrimpers have been spared regulations that would have hurt the industry.
The NOAA Fisheries denial letter shows that shrimpers’ actively fishing doesn’t correlate with the increase in turtle deaths, she said. “In fact, many of the strandings occurred when there was little or no shrimp activity.”
Of the 443 turtle deaths this year, 45 percent were in April, a month before the Mississippi shrimp season opened.
Long said the alliance studied federal records and found that two of the turtles that died with sediment in their lungs, due to drowning or forced submersion, died at a time when only two shrimp boats were actively trawling the Gulf.
And she said both had been boarded and found to be in compliance with turtle protection requirements.