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Racing Extinction: Ending Turtle By-Catch

The 2015 documentary “Racing Extinction” explores the sad possibility that we’ll lose half of all species by the end of the century — and what we can do to stop it.

Near the end of 2015, Discovery aired a new documentary entitled “Racing Extinction,” produced by the same filmmakers responsible for the famous 2009 documentary “The Cove.” The program explored the scientific theory that we stand to lose half of the world’s species to extinction by the end of the century — many of them as a direct consequence of human activity. Not without hope, the documentary also promoted the idea that while people have brought the planet to the brink of disaster, we also have the power to turn things around. Launched in conjunction with the film, a campaign called #StartWith1Thing encourages each of us to make one small change for the betterment of the planet. In this series of articles, we’ll take a look at some of these suggested changes, focusing especially on those associated with the ocean.

Ending Turtle By-Catch

The #StartWith1Thing campaign is meant to show that no matter how overwhelming the issues facing our planet may seem, each of us has the power to influence change through our own actions; in fact, that may be the only solution. One such action suggested by the campaign is to support an ongoing petition encouraging President Obama to make Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) compulsory for all U.S. shrimp trawlers.

As many of us know from firsthand experience, sea turtles are magnificent, charismatic creatures. They’re among the most extraordinary marine animals, known for their longevity, their deep-diving abilities, and their incredible navigation skills. They are also crucial to the continued health of marine ecosystems all over the world. Their existence dates back hundreds of millions of years but, despite this, we’ve allowed all seven sea turtle species to dwindle almost to the point of extinction. Ending turtle by

Ending turtle by-catch is critical to ensure the survival of the species, as it’s one of the most significant threats to remaining sea-turtle populations, particularly via entanglement in trawl nets. Designed to catch everything in their path, trawl nets are notoriously indiscriminate. Once caught, turtles are unable to return to the surface to breathe, and will drown if they cannot free themselves. Those that do succeed in escaping the nets are often left badly injured, and may suffer infection, amputation and even death as a consequence.

Every year, more than 50,000 sea turtles are killed by shrimp-trawling nets in the southeastern waters of the U.S. alone, including the critically endangered hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley species. For 30 years, NOAA Fisheries has been working with scientists to develop a solution in the form of TEDs. Today, TEDs constitute a simple grid fitted into the neck of the shrimp trawl net. The grid lets shrimp pass through into the catch bag, but deflects larger animals like turtles to an opening that allows them to escape.

According to NOAA Fisheries, TEDs are capable of saving a staggering 97 percent of sea turtles caught, while newer models may prove even more effective. Despite these figures, TEDs remain a controversial subject in commercial fishing circles, with many fishermen loathe to spare the expense required to update their gear. Currently, only certain shrimp trawlers are legally required to implement TEDs. As a result, the petition being promoted by the #StartWith1Thing campaign asks President Obama to make TEDs compulsory for all shrimp trawlers in the U.S.

It is estimated that if the petition succeeds, an additional 5,500 sea turtles could be saved in American waters every year. Turtles are not the only species to benefit from TEDs, which also work to release other non-target species including dolphins, sharks and rays. In fact, new scientific studies suggest that if the spaces between the bars of the current TED model were made smaller by just one inch, fin-fish by-catch in the southeastern fishery could be reduced by over 55 million pounds. The petition therefore also calls for an update to this improved design.

Of course, making TEDs compulsory throughout the U.S. shrimp trawling industry is only the beginning. In the U.S. alone, other trawling industries (including those that target mackerel, horseshoe crabs and squid) are responsible for a devastating amount of by-catch that could be alleviated by the implementation of TEDs. Elsewhere in the world, other trawling industries remain similarly unregulated. It is hoped that if the petition is successful, it could set an invaluable precedent for other trawl-fishing nations.

Add your voice by signing the TED petition here, and to make the most difference in this issue, exclude shrimp entirely from your diet until there’s implementation of TED nets worldwide. Demand drives supply: if we, as consumers, demand a change, the shrimp-trawling industry will listen.