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BELLE CHASSE, La. (AP) — Shrimpers who make a living in the bays and marshes of the Gulf of Mexico say pending rules forcing them to install clunky devices on their nets to save endangered sea turtles may push their struggling industry over the edge.
The National Marine Fisheries Service is holding public sessions in the Gulf of Mexico and North Carolina to inform fishermen about proposed rules requiring small-fry fishermen who trawl for shrimp in state waters to install escape hatches for sea turtles on their nets by next spring.
The rules, if given final approval by NMFS, would affect about 2,435 active fishing vessels in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and North Carolina.
The rules target three common types of nets called skimmer trawls, pusher-head trawls and wing nets or butterfly trawls. Florida already requires the turtle-excluder devices on those kinds of nets.
A spike in turtle deaths and strandings in the Gulf since 2010, environmental lawsuits, the BP PLC oil spill and the endangered status of sea turtles have coincided to cause NMFS to take more decisive action to protect the vulnerable turtle populations that swim the Gulf and Atlantic Seaboard.
The turtle excluder devices have been a requirement for larger shrimp vessels that work in federal waters since 1987, but in state waters, shrimpers have been allowed to bypass that requirement. Instead of the devices, fishermen in state waters are supposed to lift their nets out of the water every once in a while to help trapped turtles breath and get out of nets.
In the past two years, more than 1,100 dead sea turtles have been found in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama waters. Scientists called that a high number of stranded and dead turtles.
Federal scientists estimate about 28,000 sea turtles, all either threatened or endangered, are caught each year in nets. NMFS says the new rules should save about 5,500 turtles a year.
The changes are among the most drastic regulatory measures to hit the shrimp industry in recent years and it has stirred up fierce opposition among fishermen who've long resisted moves to force the turtle-saving gear on the fleet.
At a meeting Tuesday evening in Belle Chasse, La., fishermen lined up against the proposed rules.
Clint Guidry, the president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, complained there was little evidence that the shrimp fleet was responsible for the spike in sea turtle deaths. He noted that many deaths were recorded in March and April, months when shrimp fishermen are tied up at docks waiting for the spring shrimp season to open.
He warned that the new rules could destroy the industry.
"We're at a tipping point right now," he said.
Tim Kerner, the mayor of the fishing town of Lafitte, urged regulators to withdraw the proposed rules.
"They've been through six hurricanes and the BP oil spill," Kerner said of the state's fishermen. "They've been through enough."
Matthew Moreau, a 37-year-old shrimper from Port Sulpher, said installing a TED could make it impossible for him to shrimp the way he has been doing it — by dragging nets in shallow marsh waters. Moreau complained that the devices are too big for what he does and they will let not only turtles out but also shrimp.
He saw no reason to change the rules and said fishermen aren't to blame for turtle deaths.
"I've caught them," he said about turtles. "They're still alive, so we throw them back. They're not good to eat so why would we keep them?"
He worried that imposing the new rules could drive him off the water and out of the only job he knows how to do.
"I was born and bred to fish," he said. "Half the guys here got a 5th grade education. I don't know how to turn on a computer."
The next public meeting is Wednesday in Biloxi, Miss., and a final meeting is scheduled for June 13 in Bayou La Batre, Ala.