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Some businesses shun Mississippi shrimp

JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALDNets with turtle-excluder devices attached hang from a boat at the shrimp harbor in Biloxi on Sunday.
JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALDNets with turtle-excluder devices attached hang from a boat at the shrimp harbor in Biloxi on Sunday. SUN HERALD

Thousands of restaurants and stores across America could be shying away from some Mississippi caught shrimp because a small portion of the shrimp fleet isn't taking steps to save sea turtles, a watchdog group says.

None of the boats that fish Mississippi waters using skimmer trawls, which allow the net to rise above the water to catch shrimp that can jump over the more prevalent "otter" nets, are required to use turtle excluder devices that allow turtles to escape the nets before they drown. The theory is the nets are emptied more often and therefore the turtles won't drown.

Oceana, the watchdog group, released a report Tuesday on the effects of using TEDs on sea turtles

and bycatch, the portion of the catch that's gets swept up with the shrimp then discarded. It said the vast majority of Mississippi shrimpers, including most of the boats using skimmers, use TEDs. But because skimmers aren't required to use them, Seafood Watch, a group that ranks seafood according to its sustainability, has put skimmer-caught seafood on its red, or avoid, list.

That list, a service of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, guides a thousand businesses -- Whole Foods, Disney, Aramark and Compas Group -- when it comes to buying seafood. Another 1.5 million people have downloaded the Seafood Watch app, that gives advice to diners and shoppers. In all, Seafood Watch says, 100,000 restaurants, stores and other locations, use the information on seafood.

Turtles, game fish at risk

And, because Mississippi makes no distinction between shrimp caught with skimmers and other catches, all shrimpers could be missing out on a large market.

"Here's what's really interesting about this," said Lora Snyder, one of the authors of the report. "Most of these fishermen are using the TEDs but because there isn't a government requirement, they've been red-listed."

Oceana is pushing to require TEDs on all boats. Snyder said that will not only save more sea turtles, it will save red snapper, red drum and other fish highly priced by recreational anglers.

And, it also wants to reduce the space between the turtle-saving bars in TEDs from four inches to three inches, which would save fish and turtles. TEDs work by allowing shrimp to flow through the device that stops larger turtles and fish. The fish and turtles can then leave the net through an escape hatch while the shrimp continue on back into the pocket of the net where they can't escape.

"The Southeast shrimp fishery has more bycatch than any other (in the U.S.)," she said. "This would reduce the time between trawls for shrimpers, too. Once they pull (the net) up on deck, they have to throw back 62 percent of the what they catch. Some of that is valuable to other fishermen."

DMR provides TEDs

The Mississippi Department of Marine Reources said there are 86 licensed skimmer trawls in the state. Last year, there were about 300 shrimp boats on the water at the start of the season, which is based on the size of the shrimp but normally is in late spring.

She said the new TEDs would cost shrimpers up to $400 per net but that in the past, environmental groups have helped with the cost.

For example, DMR provided 390 TEDs in 2011, said Joe Jewell, director of DMR's Office of Marine Fisheries.

Jewell said Marine Patrol does compliance inspections along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Coast Guard.

NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service has held meetings, including one last month in Biloxi, asking the public about the improved TEDs and the skimmer trawls.

Those comments haven't been made public, said Michael C. Barnette of the Fisheries Service.

"They will be compiled, grouped, and summarized in the forthcoming (Draft Environmental Impact Statement) in the near future," he said.

The Southern Shrimp Alliance, an organization of shrimpers, processors and other members of the industry, wasn't among the commenters.

"We will wait until the DEIS this summer, which will have more specific/developed options and alternatives to comment on," Executive Director John Williams wrote in an email.