HOUSTON — THE greatest turbulence to hit Texas and Louisiana shores this year may not be a Gulf storm, but the now-muted tempest over efforts to save endangered sea turtles. Tenacious lobbying by environmentalists to save sea turtles from drowning in shrimp fishermen's nets has resulted in a victory for the turtles. Gulf of Mexico shrimpers now must use ``turtle excluder devices'' (TEDs). Shrimpers are still vocal, however, about protecting their livelihood from regulations they fear will economically disable them.
In the middle of the turmoil are five species of sea turtles, all officially listed as either endangered or threatened.
``The shrimpers don't want to catch turtles,'' says David Owens, a biologist with Texas A&M University who studies sea turtle behavior. ``It is that unfortunate co-occurrence where crabs [which the turtles eat] live with shrimp that is causing the problem.''
``The bottom line is that we're not the problem,'' says Jan Harper, president of the Texas Shrimpers Association. ``It's the condominiums, the beach traffic, the poaching in Mexico, the turtle fisheries.''
Nevertheless, Sunday marked the end of an official transition period for installing TEDs on shrimpers' nets. Compliance so far has been mixed. Of 27 US Coast Guard boardings in the western part of the Gulf between Sept. 27 and Oct. 4, eight boats were found not in compliance, says Gene Proulx, assistant special agent in charge of the Southeast region of the United States. Court battle and delays
While the amount of fines levied during the transition (which permitted a reduced fine) was not available, Mr. Proulx rated compliance by shrimpers in Florida as very good, in Texas fairly good, and in Louisiana not as good. Fines range from $8,000 to $12,000 for a first offense.
The law requiring all commercial shrimp boats of 25 feet or more to pull TEDs went into effect Sept. 8, after delays caused by a summer-long public relations and court battle, and heated negotiations. After Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher reluctantly put the law in force, shrimp boat blockades in Louisiana followed. And President Bush promised to review the law.
Advocates of TEDs say they keep turtles out of the shrimpers' bycatch - the miscellaneous sea animals and debris scooped in the nets along with shrimp. ``More than 90 percent of what you catch in a trawler is not shrimp,'' says Professor Owens. ``It's other things you really don't want.''
Many Gulf shrimpers insist, however, that TEDs give an escape route for shrimp with losses of 20 to 50 percent, especially when the TEDs get clogged. The government estimates a 6 percent loss.
``Just because they made the regulation, [that] doesn't clear up the bottom trash - didn't stop the TEDs from clogging up,'' says Tee John Mialjevich, a Louisiana shrimper and spokesman for the Concerned Shrimpers of America. ``It didn't stop the TEDs from losing more shrimp than the people can afford to lose.''
What has concerned environmentalists, however, is the possible extinction of several species of turtles. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that 11,000 turtles were killed annually in shrimpers' nets before the law.
The most dramatic situation involves the Kemp's ridley turtle, which makes its home in the Gulf. As recently as 1947, hundreds of thousands of female Kemp's ridleys returned to nesting grounds on Rancho Nuevo beach in northern Mexico. Decline of Kemp's ridley
But at last count there were just 546 breeding females, according to Jack Woody, national sea turtle coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The Mexican government now protects Rancho Nuevo from poachers.
Still, the Kemp's ridley is ``one of the most endangered vertebrates in the Western Hemisphere,'' Owens says. ``It's like whooping cranes and condors. It's that level of concern.''
Texas and Louisiana shrimpers say they support efforts to ensure ecological health of the fishing grounds. But even before the TEDs controversy, shrimpers faced increased competition from imported shrimp, much from nations unconcerned about turtles.
``The domestic producer in the United States produces only one-third of all the shrimp consumed in this country,'' Mr. Harper says. ``We're not a big player in the marketplace.''
Environmentalists and government spokesmen point to education as one way to ease shrimpers' doubts about TEDs and limit losses to acceptable levels. Educating both sides
``Shrimping is a skill that is acquired over a number of years,'' says Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. ``It isn't something you pick up on a weekend. So, too, using a TED in a shrimp net is a skill that is going to be developed over the course of some period of time.''
Shrimpers respond that environmentalists have a thing or two to learn about the shrimping business. Many, they note, have never been on board Gulf trawlers to observe problems with TEDs.
``We're still trying to get some of these environmentalists to come on our boats and see firsthand,'' Mialjevich says.
Gulf shrimpers have been vocal, occasionally even violent, in opposing TEDs. But while some Gulf shrimpers vow to continue fighting, others seem more flexible. Right now the controversy is subdued, but still volatile.
Although TEDS brought controversy to the Gulf, they have been accepted without incident by shrimpers in the South Atlantic, where waters are freer of sea grass likely to clog a TED.
But many Gulf shrimpers say TEDs do not even do good job protecting turtles. Others claim never to see any turtles, let alone snare the rare Kemp's ridley.
``We can't save a turtle we're not catching,'' Mialjevich says. ``That's all there is to it.''