Working with fishermen to reduce bycatch

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Associated Press

Posted on April 18, 2014 at 1:32 PM

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — One way to get anglers and commercial fisherman to use devices to save sea turtles, dolphins and off-limit fish is to have them help design and test those devices, scientists told turtle scientists and conservationists — members of the International Sea Turtle Society.

Mike Osmond of the World Wildlife Fund described the International Smart Gear Competition contest to create gear for reducing bycatch — anything a commercial boat or angler isn't trying to catch. There's a $30,000 grand prize, two $10,000 prizes and two $7,500 prizes. This year's deadline for entries is Aug. 31, he said.

The presentation was in a state where hundreds of shrimp boats once barricaded ports over a federal rule requiring them to add turtle escape hatches to their trawls and where many shrimpers think scientists invent data in studies concluding that shrimp nets kill tens of thousands of turtles.

Martin Hall, head of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission's tuna-dolphin program, says that over many years he helped convince skippers of 600 tuna boats from nine countries to voluntarily accept hooks designed to avoid catching dolphins.

It starts with respect, he said Wednesday, the next-to-last day of a week of meetings and workshops held by the International Sea Turtle Society.

A fisherman with little formal education still knows his business, he told hundreds of people in a session about collaborative fisheries research.

Although the barricaded ports in Louisiana and Texas were 25 years ago, many shrimpers still distrust scientists. Offshore shrimper Dean Blanchard said during the break that he's never caught a turtle and thinks federal regulators secretly release sea turtles before checking nets inshore: "They raise them in Galveston and throw them in the water." Offshore, he said, seismic oil exploration, explosions to release oil rigs from the sea floor and menhaden nets probably kill far more turtles than shrimp nets.

Troy Hartley, director of Virginia Sea Grant, said it has taken hard work for scientists to overcome East Coast fishermen's distrust. Work on fishing boats helped show the fishermen how science worked and fostered understanding in a less obvious way, by requiring hours on the water together, he said.

"You're getting on a boat at 4 in the morning and driving four hours before you get where you want to be," Hartley said.

Now the contention is over whether inshore shrimpers will have to put turtle escape hatches, called turtle excluder devices or TEDs, in their nets rather than pulling up trawls every 55 minutes so any netted turtles are brought to the surface still alive and can be released. Federal observers who found 24 turtles in shrimp nets in 2012 said many of the other boats they saw were not obeying time limits.

TEDs for larger offshore trawls have been redesigned several times since the 1980s, when shrimpers said they let 30 percent of their catch escape. They work so well at keeping trash out of nets that offshore trawlers would probably keep their TEDs even if they weren't required, offshore shrimper Ronald Dufrene of Lafitte said during a break.

The rule was proposed in 2012, after two years when more than 1,100 dead sea turtles were found in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama waters. Many of those still in shape to dissect had drowned near the bottom, probably in shrimp nets, officials said.

After the public sessions, about 100 sea turtle society members gathered for a private panel including shrimpers. Letting reporters in might be polarizing, an organizer said.

One speaker, shrimper Archie Dufrene, of Dulac, said he thought it went well.

"I think we got our point across that we are not really trying to go out and just kill turtles and we want to work with the National Marine Fisheries (Service) and get this all straightened out," he said Thursday.

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Online:

http://www.seaturtlesociety.org/

https://worldwildlife.org/projects/2014-international-smart-gear-competition

Louisiana Shrimp Association: http://www.louisianashrimp.org/aboutus.html

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