The state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has fired back after Louisiana shrimp were “red-listed” by a California aquarium's seafood program that's popular with environmentally conscious people and followed by national retailers.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program has recommended all shrimp harvested from Louisiana be avoided because state law doesn't require local officials to enforce federal regulations to use turtle excluder devices to protect sea turtles and other species from being caught accidentally by shrimpers.
Calling the label unfair, LDWF Secretary Robert Barham asked the aquarium's director to rethink the decision.
Barham said he believes most shrimpers use the devices and federal agencies such as the Coast Guard are referring violators to federal authorities for enforcement.
“Data between October 2011 and January 2013 show that 187 vessel inspections were conducted in state waters. This compares to only 34 in each of Florida and Mississippi and three in Alabama. Violations of these federal laws in state waters are reported to federal authorities,” Barham's letter states.
Bob Hoffman, endangered species branch chief for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, said NOAA works with the Coast Guard on inspection and NOAA also has a gear-monitoring team that works with fishermen to determine compliance rates. He said throughout the southeastern Gulf region, there is about 87 percent compliance with excluder regulations, according to the agency's monitoring.
“I would say Louisiana fishermen are probably as compliant as other fishermen in other states. We have no evidence to indicate they are less compliant,” Hoffman said.
Misinterpreting the situation in Louisiana could hurt local shrimp industry, Barham said.
“The socioeconomic impacts to our shrimpers from this designation has the potential to cripple families and coastal communities who have endured repeated disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike, Gustav and Isaac, the BP oil spill and the disappearance of our coast,” Barham wrote.
The aquarium's Seafood Watch bases its recommendations on the sustainability of a particular fishery.
A turtle excluder device is a grid of bars with an opening either at the top or the bottom of a trawl net. Small animals such as shrimp pass through the bars and are caught. Larger animals strike the grid bars and are freed through the opening, according to NOAA.
The Seafood Watch report said Louisiana is alone among Gulf of Mexico and southern Atlantic states in not enforcing federal requirements for the excluder devices.
Under a 1987 state law, Louisiana officials are forbidden to enforce turtle excluder device requirements in state waters where most shrimp fishing occurs.
Many fishermen have protested intensifying regulations because the devices interfere with the intended catch.
When operated properly, such devices are found to reduce catch by 3 percent while about 90 percent of caught turtles are freed, Hoffman said.
“Even when conscientious Louisiana fishermen voluntarily comply with regulations that protect sea turtles, the state's mandate not to enforce this essential measure creates a critical conservation concern and an 'Avoid' recommendation for all shrimp caught in Louisiana,” said Margaret Spring, vice president of conservation and science for the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Barham's letter points out that preliminary NOAA observer logs for 2013 indicate that in nearly 1,100 skimmer tows, seven sea turtles have been captured and released alive while none have been reported killed in trawl nets.
Researchers still have much to learn about endangered sea-turtle populations in the northern Gulf of Mexico, Hoffman said. Such turtles are migratory, but evidence indicates the northern Gulf is an important foraging area, especially for young turtles that hatch on local beaches.
Since 2010's BP oil spill, efforts to monitor the turtles have increased, Hoffman said.
In 2011, there were 148 turtle strandings reported in Louisiana. There were 162 in 2012 and more than 190 so far this year, according to NOAA data. Most strandings occur from late spring through summer.
Hoffman said there is still much to be determined about why this spike occurs. He said many turtles are found to have died through forced submergence, which indicates possible fishing interference, though there were no gill net marks and little shirmping activity in the area at the time of observation.
“We don't quite know what is causing it,” Hoffman said