Don’t Eat the Turtles When You Order the Shrimp

Headed to the supermarket to pick up some fish filets for dinner? Or perhaps you’re going to your favorite restaurant to dine on some scrumptious seafood this evening?

How would you like your dinner choices to give your favorite turtle a leg up in the Great Turtle Race? Better yet, wouldn’t it be great if your evening menu helped turtles all over the globe (and seabirds, and fish, and marine mammals, and sharks)?

A quick search on the Internet, or even a text message – if that’s more your speed – can have great results. When it comes to seafood, knowledge is power: use what you know to choose seafood that conserves marine life and habitat.

Our seafood selections can affect hoards of swimming creatures. Learn about the impacts of different fishing and fish-farming methods by checking out www.blueocean.org/seafood or send a text to FishPhone™ to get instant information on a fish you might consider. Text FISH and the name of the species you would like to learn more about to 30644 (e.g., FISH MACKEREL, or FISH CLAMS); in under ten seconds Blue Ocean will send you our recommendation and the reason for it.

Fishing vessels catch the fish that we purchase for dinner, but in the process, they also kill or wound other species (and sometimes younger fish of the same species). That “bycatch” can include those sea turtles that you’re watching right now on www.GreatTurtleRace.org. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that one quarter of the world’s commercial marine catch is bycatch (approximately 20 million metric tons).

With 6 of the world’s 7 species of marine turtles listed as endangered or vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), bycatch can have a major impact on turtle populations. The IUCN and the National Marine Fisheries Marine Fisheries Service list incidental catch in marine fisheries as one of the main threats to the 6 species of marine turtles with low numbers (the other being threats to nesting and hatching turtles). Globally, most sea turtle populations are imperiled. The ones doing best are in the Caribbean and southeast U.S., and the reason is a lot of organized conservation work and something called a TED. Read on.

Turtles end up as bycatch when they are caught in nets dragged along the sea floor, a common practice by fisheries targeting shrimp. Turtles are also snagged on the hooks and lines of longlines that stretch miles. Longlines are used to catch near-surface species including Swordfish, Mahimahi, and tuna, and also bottom fish of various kinds.

The good news is that effective methods can decrease bycatch. In the U.S., Turtle Excluder Devices (TED) are required on shrimp boats fishing in federal waters; they are a grate that block turtles from entering the deepest part of a trawl net and shunt the turtle out an escape hatch. An innovation in longline fisheries is the use of circle hooks, which hook fewer turtles and, if they do hook them, hook them in the mouth (where the hook can be removed safely) and seldom hook them in the gut. This allows fishermen to more easily release turtles unharmed.

By selecting fish caught in ways that result in less bycatch – or farmed varieties – you can keep turtles in the race. Thinking about ordering the shrimp cocktail? Make sure it’s from a U.S. fishery (which has to use TEDs), or U.S. farmed shrimp. See why those are your best choices at www.BlueOcean.org.

Check out the Blue Ocean website to get an idea of what other species result in less bycatch. Ask your server for where the fish came – and see if they know. There are lots of people who wield their forks in favor of marine life, so don’t feel like you’re single-handedly trying to save the sea. You can start just by being informed and motivated.

Katherine McLaughlin is the Seafood Program Director for Blue Ocean Institute, a global nonprofit marine conservation organization based in East Norwich, NY. Kate coordinates the translation of scientific information related to seafood for the dissemination to wide audiences through varied and creative media. Prior to joining Blue Ocean, Kate held a fellowship with the American Fisheries Society and Sea Grant, where she co-organized a symposium and edited the accompanying proceedings volume, Mitigating Impacts of Natural Hazards on Fishery Ecosystems.

Dr. Carl Safina brought ocean conservation into the environmental mainstream and is founding president of Blue Ocean Institute. His award-winning books include “Song for the Blue Ocean,” “Eye of the Albatross,” and “Voyage of the Turtle.” He’s been profiled by the New York Times, Nightline, and Bill Moyers, and his awards include a Pew Fellowship, Lannan Literary Award, John Burroughs Medal, and a MacArthur Prize, among others.

RELATED: Q&A: The Fisheries Crisis

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