Oceans & Coastal Resources:
A Briefing Book
Congressional Research Service Report 97-588 ENR
Redistributed as a service of the National Library for the Environment

Shrimp Fishery and Sea Turtle Concerns

Prepared by Eugene H. Buck

Senior Analyst in Natural Resources Policy
Environment and Natural Resources Policy Division


Issue Definition
Background and Analysis
Status of the Issue
Continuing Concerns
Sources and References for Further Information

Issue Definition

Sea turtles, almost all species of which have been declared threatened or endangered, can be inadvertently caught and drowned in trawl nets pulled by fishing vessels harvesting shrimp. The United States has reduced sea turtle mortality by requiring U.S. shrimp trawlers to use turtle excluder devices (TEDs) to reduce turtle drownings; however, turtle mortalities from some foreign shrimp vessels might still be substantial. The use of TEDs reduces the efficiency of shrimp trawling; some domestic shrimpers contend the economic impacts are severe. Efforts to reduce finfish bycatch during shrimp trawling could result in additional restrictions or regulations on shrimp harvesters.

Background and Analysis8

Sea turtle conservation became a U.S. concern in the late 1970s and early 1980s. All five sea turtle species inhabiting state and federal waters are protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA). Before current sea turtle conservation efforts, at least 11,000 sea turtles (and probably several times this estimate, according to the National Academy of Sciences) died each year from shrimp trawling in U.S. waters. For the Kemp's ridley sea turtle, annual mortality estimates exceeded the number of females that came ashore to lay eggs.

In the early 1990s, after much litigation, TEDs became mandatory for all U.S. shrimp trawlers longer than 25 feet in Gulf and South Atlantic offshore waters and for all inshore shrimpers. Some shrimpers balked at TEDs use, claiming TEDs reduced shrimp harvest 30% or more; federal government tests indicated an average 10% reduction in harvest. On November 14, 1994, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a biological opinion concluding that, despite existing TED regulations, the continued operation of the southeastern U.S. shrimp fishery was likely to jeopardize the existence of the endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtle. This followed ESA consultations between NMFS and shrimpers after extensive sea turtle mortalities occurred along the Louisiana, Texas, and Georgia coasts during the spring and summer of 1994. To address these concerns, NMFS released an Emergency Response Plan (ERP) on March 14, 1995. The ERP identified emergency actions that NMFS would take in specific areas where elevated sea turtle deaths occurred, including a ban on using soft TEDs and bottom-opening TEDs. After NMFS agreed to concessions on ERP implementation, Earth Island Institute, the Humane Society of the United States, and a sea turtle advocate filed suit against NMFS on July 6, 1995, charging federal efforts to protect turtles were insufficient. On August 1, 1995, U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent ruled that shrimpers must use hard TEDs when fishing within 12 miles of shore along the Texas and western Louisiana coast, and that sampling nets less than 15 feet in size would not require TEDs. Regulations implementing the ERP were promulgated on December 19, 1996 (61 Federal Register 66933).

Low-cost imports, which provided nearly 80% of the total U.S. shrimp supply in 1995, squeeze domestic shrimpers. To assist both sea turtles and U.S. shrimpers, §610 of P.L. 101-162 prohibited imports of shrimp after May 1, 1991, from nations whose fishing practices adversely affect sea turtle conservation. The U.S. government published standards for determining foreign compliance (56 Federal Register 1051, Jan.10, 1991; subsequently revised at 58 Federal Register 9015, Feb.18, 1993), and banned shrimp imports from several Caribbean nations. Environmental groups, however, believed the U.S. government had not acted expeditiously to sanction all harmful foreign shrimp mg practices, and the Earth Island Institute filed suit early in 1992 seeking to force sanctions against foreign nations worldwide whose shrimpers have not reduced sea turtle deaths by 97% -- a rate comparable to U.S. shrimp industry accomplishments. After dismissal on the grounds that it was improperly filed with a court lacking jurisdiction, environmental groups refiled this suit in early June 1994 against the U.S. government in the U.S. Court of International Trade in New York City. Although these unilateral U.S. sanctions were not initially challenged under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) or the more recent World Trade Organization (WTO), foreign critics questioned their acceptability.

Reducing incidental bycatch of fish in shrimp trawls could be seen to necessitate additional controls on shrimp harvesters. However, discarded bycatch is not necessarily "waste,'t and the benefits of reducing such discards may not always exceed the costs. Harvesters criticize any gear modification to reduce bycatch if the modified gear is less efficient in catching shrimp, as has been reported for TEDs. Some managers, on the other hand, suggest that if properly used, little loss in efficiency will occur. A 1990 amendment to the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act, §110(c) of P.L. 101-627, authorized a 3-year study of bycatch from Gulf and South Atlantic shrimp trawlers, and prohibited federal regulations to reduce shrimp trawl bycatch before January 1, 1994. This prohibition was extended for 3 months by §702 of P.L. 103-206. Meanwhile, the Gulf and South Atlantic Fisheries Development Foundation, using a $600,000 Saltonstall-Kennedy grant awarded in early summer 1991, developed a plan to reduce finfish bycatch in the shrimp trawl fishery. In October 1992, North Carolina became the first state to require shrimp trawlers to use a finfish excluding device (FED, also called a bycatch reduction device, or BRD) while fishing in state waters, primarily to conserve weakfish (gray trout) populations. In addition, the MARFIN (Marine Fisheries Initiative) Program, administered by NMFS for the Gulf of Mexico, identified incidental catch/bycatch research for shrimp and other fisheries as the priority issue for funding. Supporters of bycatch reduction claim that use of FEDs/BRDs significantly reduces the amount of time spent sorting the shrimp catch, and that the shrimp catch is of better quality since it is not crushed.

Status of the Issue9

Early in 1995, the Taura virus syndrome (originating in South America) devastated more than 70% of the shrimp grown in three Taiwanese-owned shrimp farms in south Texas, with damages estimated at more than $10 million. Concerns for risk to native shrimp were expressed and, in July 1995, Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife officials announced preliminary information indicating that native white shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico could be susceptible to infection by the Taura syndrome. In May 1996, three shrimp farms in South Carolina reported an outbreak of the Taura syndrome.

In September 1995, officials from 40 nations gathered in Huatulco, Oaxaca, Mexico, to negotiate a Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles in the Western Hemisphere. Among other things, the Convention sought to reduce the incidental mortality to turtles from shrimp trawling. Negotiators could not agree whether to focus on use of turtle excluder devices or broaden the agreement to address a wider range of sea turtle conservation concerns. In September 1996, delegates from 15 nations attended a fourth negotiating session on an Inter-American Convention of the Conservation and Protection of Sea Turtles, held in Salvador, Brazil, concluding negotiations on a new treaty to promote cooperation and coordination among Western Hemisphere nations. Recovery of sea turtle populations and habitat is promoted by requiring TEDs in shrimp fisheries, encouraging scientific research, and reducing incidental bycatch of sea turtles in other fishing activities. The treaty recognizes the importance of sea turtles and their eggs to indigenous peoples and coastal communities by providing opportunity for limited exceptions to the prohibition on intentional capture and use of sea turtles and their eggs.

On December 29, 1995, in response to the June 1994 lawsuit, U.S. Court of International Trade Judge Thomas J. Aquilino directed the United States to prohibit, by May 1, 1996, shrimp imports from nations where wild-caught shrimp are harvested by commercial fishing methods that may adversely affect sea turtle conservation, and to report on these actions to the Court by May 31, 1996. (The eight largest exporters of wild-caught shrimp to the United States are India, Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico, Malaysia, Brazil, Republic of Korea, and Japan.) On April 19, 1996, the U.S. Department of State published guidelines for implementing the December 1995 court ruling (61 Federal Register 17342), and on May 17 the U.S. Department of State identified 36 nations meeting the certification guidelines for export of shrimp to the United States (61 Federal Register 24998). In further action on October 8, 1996, Judge Aquilino ordered the United States to prohibit shrimp imports from nations not certified under §609 of P.L. 101-162; the judge held that an import ban short of an embargo on shrimp imports would undermine the incentive for nations to become certified.

On October 8, 1996, four Asian nations (India, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Thailand) filed a case against the United States with the World Trade Organization relating to U.S. embargoes of shrimp. On December 25, 1996, Thai officials announced that they would seek authorization to pursue dispute proceedings by the World Trade Organization against the United States, after reporting no U.S. response to the October WTO filing. On January 22, 1997, the United States blocked immediate consideration by the WTO's Dispute Settlement Body of the Asian dispute case.

Language included in FY 1996 appropriations measures for the Department of Commerce required additional consideration for the shrimp industry's concerns about the economic impact of additional turtle protection measures, and delayed NMFS's implementation of what shrimpers consider burdensome additional regulations to protect sea turtles. Many of the recent proposals to amend the ESA reflect the experience of shrimp ers and others with how this Act is implemented, particularly with perceived economic impacts. Proposals to reauthorize the ESA are likely to be discussed again in the 105th Congress.

Continuing Concerns

These concerns and questions are provided to stimulate further discussion of the issues noted above.

  1. The use of TEDs has clear economic effects, but unambiguous data on the extent of the economic disruption of the shrimp industry caused by TED regulations does not exist. What incentives might encourage shrimp trawlers to direct more attention to waste minimization or use? Should penalties for excessive waste be invoked under certain circumstances? What effects might such efforts have on bycatch discards that benefit shrimp populations by making more food available and decreasing potential fish predators?
  2. Will enforcement of the restrictions on shrimp imports allow domestic shrimp harvesters to improve their economic situation? What will be the cost to consumers? What magnitude of market disruption might arise subsequent to the court decision directing that U.S. shrimp import sanctions to be applied more broadly?
  3. How has the Department of State interpretation of the P,L. 101-162 import sanction provisions affected foreign acceptance of TEDs? To what extent will greater foreign use of TEDs reduce economic benefits to domestic shrimp harvesters and ameliorate the impact on consumers?
  4. Long-term use of TEDs could have a wide variety of effects. It is unclear to what extent sea turtles have benefited from greater use of TEDs, but such benefits might not be apparent in the short term. Long-term use could also lead to a variety of adjustments, both by shrimp harvesters and by other commercial operators. What are the long-term potential impacts of TED regulations on employment and the local economies of Gulf and South Atlantic coastal communities and counties?

Sources and References for Further Information

Clark, Joy, et al. "Simulated Economic Impact of TED Regulations on Selected Vessels in the Texas Shrimp Fishery." Marine Fisheries Review, 1991. 53(2): 1-8.

McDorman, Ted L. "The GATT Consistency of U.S. Fish Import Embargoes to Stop Driftnet Fishing, and Save Whales, Dolphins and Turtles." George Washington Journal of International Law and Economics, 1991.24(3): 477- 525.

U.S. Congress, House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, Subcommittee on Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation and the Environment. Sea Turtle Conservation and the Shrimp Industry. Hearing, 101st Gong., 2nd Sess. May 1, 1990. Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Office, 1990. 326 p.

U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service. Turtle Excluder Devices: Sea Turtles and/or Shrimp? CRS Report for Congress No.90-327. [by Eugene H. Buck.] Washington, DC: Nov.28, 1990. 15 p.

U.S. National Research Council. Decline of the Sea Turtles: Causes and Prevention. National Academy Press, 1990. 190 p.


8 Much of this information is derived from Federal Register notices by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Department of State.

9 Recent history is drawn primarily from a collection of Associated Press and Reuters newswire accounts.

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