Testing Turtle Exclusion Devices (TEDs) with NOAA

One of the hot topics along the Gulf Coast is the incidental capture of sea turtles in shrimp nets. At one time, shrimp trawls were listed as the primary cause for sea turtle mortality in U.S. waters. There are six species of sea turtles that occur in the Gulf of Mexico (leatherback, loggerhead, Kemp’s ridley, olive ridley, green, and hawksbill) and all are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Since the late 1980s and early 1990s, multiple management techniques have been implemented to reduce the mortality of sea turtles in shrimp trawls, including reduced tow times and introduction of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) into nets.

turtle totesThere are multiple shapes and designs of TEDs, with new ones being invented each year. In order for TEDs to be approved for use by NOAA, and to ensure minimal sea turtle mortality, they must be tested. Each year, a team of NOAA scientists from all over the southeastern U.S. converge on Panama City, FL to test current and new TED designs, as well as new Bycatch Reduction Device (BRD) designs that minimize the number of finfish caught in the nets.

G.U.L.F. was fortunate enough to join NOAA for a few days to experience what goes behind the development TED regulations, approval, and enforcement first-hand. The operation is quite impressive. Hundreds of young sea turtles, raised in captivity in Galveston, TX are carefully transported to holding pens in Panama City. Each morning, they are loaded into totes on the R/V Caretta. The numbers on the totes correspond with a tag on the turtle’s flipper to ensure no one gets lost.

Once the vessel reaches the trawling site, the boat becomes a flurry of activity. The boat captain and some of the crew prepare to lower the net into the water. Divers load their gear onto the dive boat and set off, waiting for the main vessel to reach a cruising speed of approximately 2.5 knots. A team of one or two boards a second zodiac where they will be in charge of retrieving turtles. Once everyone is ready, a precise and impressive process starts.

IMG_0179Three divers descend upon the trawl where they will be responsible for sending turtles through the net and collecting data. The turtles are, one by one, placed in a “bag” and sent down to the net and waiting divers by what is essentially a sea turtle zip line. Once the diver receives the turtle it is released into the trawl and given 5 minutes to escape as the divers record data. A diver is waiting at the opening of the TED to catch the turtle once it has escaped. A buoy is attached to the turtle’s carapace, which takes it to the surface to the waiting catch boat. If, after 5 minutes, the turtle has not escaped the net, the diver retrieves the turtle and sends it up to the surface. The catch boat retrieves the turtle and returns it to the Caretta and the process starts all over again.

 

A special thank you to the NOAA team for allowing us to tag along on the R/V Caretta. We appreciate the opportunity to allow us to better understand how TEDs work in the shrimp trawl fishery in the Gulf of Mexico, how they have helped reduce sea turtle mortality, and how continued research will help with the recovery of these endangered animals, and also help with the sustainability of the shrimp trawl fishery in the Gulf of Mexico.

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Photo Credit: Dan Foster/NOAA


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