Last month, NOAA-Fisheries, the U.S.’s fisheries management agency, took bold steps to ban the importation of shrimp from Mexico and other countries that are not complying with measures to reduce bycatch of sea turtles in shrimp trawl fisheries. This move has significant political, economic and conservation implications.
Shrimp trawls are enormous bag-shaped nets that are hauled through the water, scooping up everything in their paths. They are notoriously indiscriminate; for every pound of shrimp that make it to market – and to your shrimp cocktail – trawlers also remove between five and 20 pounds (about two to nine kilograms) of bycatch (i.e. non-target species that are accidentally captured) from the ocean. The vast majority of this bycatch is simply discarded – much of it dead – once the shrimp are plucked out of the heaps of marine animals brought aboard.
Sea turtles are among these unfortunate bystanders that often perish as a result of their interactions with shrimp trawls. Trawls in the Gulf of Mexico and the southeastern United States have been implicated in declines of multiple sea turtle populations in the region. This turtle bycatch problem is also rampant in many other places around the world, such as the Mediterranean, the eastern Pacific Ocean, and the North Indian Ocean, to name a few.
Fortunately, there is a solution to the problem: a special turtle trapdoor. Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) are metal grids that, when properly installed in trawl nets, provide an escape hatch for turtles and other large marine animals, like dolphins. Mexico, Costa Rica, and others are subject to the U.S. embargo precisely because too many of their shrimp trawlers are not using TEDs.
Mexico is the United States’ number one source of foreign-caught shrimp; in 2009, Mexico exported almost 40,000 tons of shrimp to the U.S., resulting in revenues of more than $258 million. Mexican authorities are already engaging their U.S. counterparts in talks to expedite review and assessment of Mexican trawl vessels, which would begin the process of lifting the ban.
While NOAA’s embargo is being hailed in marine conservation circles, it’s important to note that several countries in Central America and southeast Asia were spared Mexico’s fate, despite there being no more reassurance that these countries are meeting the U.S.’s TED requirements. Uniformly enforced standards are key to ensuring successful conservation and management responses.
So how can you make a difference for sea turtles around the world? By becoming an educated, responsible seafood consumer. The Blue Ocean Institute offers wallet-sized guides that provide information about how seafood gets from the ocean to your menu, allowing you to decide for yourself what kinds of fishing practices you’ll support. Forgot your guide or haven’t gotten one yet? Send a text message to FishPhone (30644) by typing FISH with the name of the seafood item you’re curious about. In seconds you’ll have the knowledge you need to make an informed decision.
The next time you reach for that plump, pink shrimp tail, ask yourself: “How did this get here?” The answer might surprise you.
Bryan Wallace is a science advisor for CI’s Global Marine program.