Conservation groups sue federal government over fisheries rule they say endangers sea turtles

An endangered green sea turtle. Credit: Mark Burdick/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Conservation groups are suing a federal agency over a fisheries rule they say endangers rare sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico and waters of the southeast Atlantic Ocean.

The lawsuit says the former Trump administration upended decades-old requirements that most shrimp nets include turtle-excluder devices that serve as an escape hatch to eject sea turtles from the nets, called trawls, that capture shrimp. Sea turtles are air-breathing reptiles that cannot survive being submerged for long.

The rule issued in 2019 grants exemptions for certain kinds of trawling gear, whereas the rule as proposed in 2016 would have closed exemptions.

The lawsuit says the rule, which would take effect Aug. 1, would allow an estimated 1,300 preventable sea-turtle deaths yearly.

Turtle-excluder devices protect sea turtles by ejecting them from shrimp trawls. Credit: National Marine Fisheries Service

Five of the world’s seven species are found in the Gulf and along the south Atlantic coast: Kemp’s ridley (the rarest), green, loggerhead, hawksbill and leatherback. All are designated as endangered or threatened species.

“Turtle excluder devices are a proven way to prevent sea turtles from needlessly drowning in shrimp trawls. They also keep other wildlife from getting caught accidentally in the nets, making more room for shrimp,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, in a press release announcing the lawsuit.

Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, headquartered in Tucson, Ariz., Defenders of Wildlife, based in Washington, D.C., and Turtle Island Restoration Network, which includes operations in the Gulf.

The lawsuit is filed against the National Marine Fisheries Service, which regulates recreational and commercial fishing in federal waters and implements the Endangered Species Act regarding marine species, and its parent organization, the U.S. Department of Commerce. The Phoenix reached out to the service for comment and was awaiting a response.

Earthjustice and its clients are asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to strike down the rule as issued, which they say violated requirements for proper notice and public hearings, and develop a new one within six months that better protects sea turtles.