Suit aims to boost sea turtle protections

A lawsuit targeting the National Marine Fisheries Service seeks to save more sea turtles like this loggerhead in Florida.

Tens of thousands of sea turtles are estimated to be killed each year by shrimping nets in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, and an environmental group is suing federal regulators to do a better job protecting the endangered species.

But South Carolina waters are not a focus of the lawsuit — the waters off Gulf states are — and Oceana staffers concede the Palmetto State is a leader in conservation efforts.

At the heart of the suit is a demand that the National Marine Fisheries Service better enforce the use of TEDs, turtle excluder devices. South Carolina led the nation in requiring the cone-shaped escape funnels, among a number of other relatively strict protections.

Nesting numbers and the number of juveniles in the waters now have wildlife biologists “cautiously optimistic” the turtles are recovering here, after years of decline.

Using numbers from the service’s own 2014 study of turtle “by-catch” by shrimping nets, Oceana alleges the shrimp harvest takes as many as half a million sea turtles per year and kills as many as 50,000. That take has an effect on the population, but not enough to stop the take, the study concluded.

“The federal agencies charged with protecting these threatened and endangered species continue to approve, albeit arbitrarily, actions that further imperil their chances of survival and recovery,” the suit alleges.

Besides better enforcement of TEDS, the lawsuit asks regulators “to simply do the math,” said Oceana marine scientist Amanda Keledjian, quantifying what effect the kills have on the population in order to enforce regulations for the shrimping industries that already are in place for other fishing. “By orders of magnitude, more sea turtles are lost to that activity than all other fishing in the country,” she said.

“NOAA Fisheries cannot discuss ongoing litigation,” said spokeswoman Jennie Lyons. The service is a NOAA agency.

“This is a typical lawsuit by a group that has an agenda against the domestic shrimping industry,” said John Williams, Southern Shrimp Alliance executive director. “I can guarantee you the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies strictly enforce the TED laws.”

The industry is not only meeting but exceeding the compliance mandates of the service and is brainstorming ways to do better, he said.

Sea turtles crawl ashore in the spring and summer to lay nests. All seven species are considered endangered or threatened. The loggerhead, the predominant species nesting here, has become a beloved totem of the South Carolina coast, its nests watched over by a virtual army of volunteer groups.

Since the turtles were put on the federal endangered species list in the 1970s, the numbers of Atlantic nesting turtles generally were thought to be in severe decline in Florida, where the overwhelming bulk of nests are laid, and until recently a more gradual decline in South Carolina, where the most nests outside Florida are laid.

The states are the two largest-by-numbers nesting grounds in the world for loggerhead turtles, which lay the overwhelming bulk of the nests. In most years, a few thousand nests full of eggs are laid across Lowcountry beaches beginning in May. The eggs usually hatch by October.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744.