GALVESTON — Conservation groups are threatening legal action against the National Marine Fisheries Service, accusing the federal agency of failing to protect endangered sea turtles killed by shrimping nets in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Turtle Island Restoration Network, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sea Turtle Conservancy and Oceana have sent the fisheries service a notice of intent to sue in 60 days if the agency does not take steps to implement protective measures for the endangered species.
The notice contends that the agency, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is violating the Endangered Species Act through “actions and inactions” that result in the deaths of tens of thousands of sea turtles caught by shrimp trawlers in the Gulf of Mexico and southeast Atlantic Ocean.
The conservation groups also argue that the service has failed to complete a revised analysis of shrimp trawling, leading to lax enforcement of existing regulations.
Allison Garrett, a NOAA spokeswoman, said in an email the agency does not comment on pending litigation, but noted that a federal analysis of shrimp trawling and its effects on protected species is underway.
Galveston is home to a NOAA laboratory devoted to scientific research on sea turtles, including work done to promote conservation efforts and modify fishing gear to protect endangered species.
The facility recovers and rehabilitates hundreds of sea turtles a year and tests Turtle Excluder Devices, or TEDs, that prevent sea turtles from being caught and drowning in shrimp trawls.
However, fishery trawls are killing about 53,000 protected sea turtles every year while the National Fisheries Service drags its feet, said Teri Shore, program director for the Turtle Island Restoration Network.
“There’s lots of other things that could be done while they’re figuring out the TEDs,” Shore said. “We need to go beyond that.”
Shore said political pressure from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, shrimping associations and others throughout the region — Louisiana law prohibits state officials from enforcing a federal regulation requiring large shrimp trawls to use TEDs — has kept the National Fisheries Service from taking stronger action on sea turtle conservation.
Jaclyn Lopez, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said there was a need for new regulations as well as stronger enforcement of existing rules.
Enforcement records show that only 35 percent of shallow-water shrimp vessels using trawls comply with existing regulations, Lopez said.
Conservation groups last sued the federal agency in 2011, but settled the litigation under the assumption the Fisheries Service would implement new fishing gear regulations.
Fisheries are operating without a biological opinion from the agency, which is failing to use its authority to protect threatened species and violating the Endangered Species Act, Lopez said.
“They’re protected not just because they’re charismatic, ancient animals, but because they’re recognized as being in danger of extinction,” she said. “From a legal perspective, conservation is the law.”
Lopez said she hopes the pressure from conservation groups will motivate the National Marine Fisheries Service to take immediate action.
“It’s a totally man-made problem, and the solution is at our fingertips,” she said.
Contact reporter Alex Macon at 409-683-5241 or firstname.lastname@example.org.