U.S. sued to curb deaths of sea turtles by shrimping industry

(Reuters) - Environmentalists seeking to curb the deaths of an estimated 53,000 sea turtles each year from getting caught in commercial shrimp nets off the southeastern United States sued federal regulators on Wednesday for stronger protections.

A Green Sea turtle swims over a reef on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, in this file photo taken March 20, 2013. REUTERS/Hugh Gentry/Files

Oceana, an ocean conservation group, is suing the National Marine Fisheries Service to force the agency to enact closer monitoring of and stricter limits on the number of turtles that can be caught and killed by the Gulf of Mexico and southeast Atlantic shrimping industry.

“If people knew that their order of shrimp cocktail came with a side of government-authorized sea turtle, they would be horrified,” Oceana lawyer Eric Bilsky said in a statement.

The fisheries service has estimated that 500,000 loggerhead, green, leatherback, hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, all listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, are injured in some way each year by shrimp fishing gear, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Washington, claims that shrimp fleets kill more turtles than all other Atlantic fisheries combined.

The suit comes a year after the fisheries service issued an analysis, known as a biological opinion, finding that the annual sea turtle death toll does not jeopardize the likelihood of survival or recovery of any of the five imperiled species.

The lawsuit asks the judge to discard that opinion, asserting that the fisheries service made no quantitative analysis to come to its conclusion.

Oceana hopes the government will compel shrimp trawlers to use so-called turtle excluder devices designed to allow air-breathing turtles to escape the nets before they drown.

The devices, which consist of a grid of bars attached to an opening part way down the net, allow larger creatures to escape while keeping the shrimp flowing to the bottom of the net.

They have been shown to release up to 97 percent of caught turtles without losing shrimp, yet federal regulations do not require all trawlers to use them, according to the lawsuit.

The suit also seeks the establishment of a turtle catch limit backed by monitoring and seasonal or area closures once the limit is reached.

A spokeswoman for the fisheries service said the agency could not comment on pending litigation.

Editing by Jonathan Kaminsky and Sandra Maler