A ``trapdoor'' device that allows endangered sea turtles to escape the tens of thousands of shrimp nets that trawl their waters each year has become the focus of a raging battle between Gulf of Mexico shrimpers and marine conservationists. After a decade of research and studies - during which sea turtle populations in the South Atlantic and gulf have continued to decline - the federal government has decided to phase in mandatory use of the Turtle Excluder Devices, called TEDs, beginning July 15.
But Gulf shrimpers say the device cuts down on shrimp harvests, causes a loss of time and money, and poses a hazard to shrimp-boat crews. Many shrimpers also claim that statistics on turtles killed by trawler nets are bloated, and that other factors, including marine pollution and poaching, are more important in the turtles' demise.
Yet for marine biologists, environmentalists, and just plain turtle lovers, the TEDs are a necessary part of a campaign to save the sea turtles, five species of which roam the Gulf and Atlantic. The most threatened is the Kemp's ridley turtle, a species with no more than 600 nesting females remaining - down from more than 40,000 in 1947.
Supporters of the TED - an open-ended slat box with slanted bars to guide objects out a trap door - say shrimp trawlers are a leading cause of turtle deaths. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) estimates that more than 40,000 sea turtles are caught by shrimp trawlers each year, and that more than one-quarter of those drown.
They also point out that TEDs can actually help shrimpers by screening out unwanted fish and debris. Some shrimpers in the South Atlantic are using the device voluntarily because it has increased their catch.
Environmentalists say the outcome of the battle over TEDs will demonstrate the nation's resolve in enforcing the Endangered Species Act. A federal crime punishable by a $20,000 fine and imprisonment is committed every time a Kemp's ridley turtle is killed. Environmentalists see the Kemp's ridley as a sort of ``line of defense'' for other, better-known protected species, including the bald eagle.
Supporters and opponents of the TED are waiting to see if any of the resolutions in Congress that would affect this summer's scheduled phase-in of TEDs will be approved.
Leroy Wietins, one TED manufacturer in Taft, Texas, says his operation is ``pretty much on hold until we see what they're going to do in Washington.''
Meanwhile, along the gulf opposition to TEDs remains virulent.
``Down here [the shrimpers] are saying, `I don't care, fine me, but I'm not going to use the TED,''' says Benny Presley, owner of Negrini's shrimp and oyster house here. In Louisiana, ``Stop the TEDs!'' bumper stickers are common along the coast.
That attitude contrasts with the cooperative effort that marked initial TED research and development in the 1970s, when the device was envisioned as a ``trawling efficiency device,'' and shrimpers were expected to use it voluntarily.
Since that time, the annual US shrimp catch, approaching $500 million a year, has become more important to more fishermen, even as pressures from federal regulations, sport fishermen, and rising imports increase.
Many shrimpers believe they are being singled out for damage committed primarily by other sources.
``The really big culprit is the oil companies,'' says John Huskey, who has been shrimping out of Galveston for nearly 50 years, and has seen the turtle population drop, he says, as refineries and other sources of pollution have come in. ``But you can't really fight them, they've got too much money.'' He believes city sewage is also a big factor, ``but you can't fight city hall either.''
Turtle researchers agree that shrimpers are not the only source of turtle mortality. Edward F. Klima, director of the Galveston laboratory of the NMFS, says the use of explosives to remove oil platforms in the gulf is a growing threat to sea turtles. Plastic products that end up in the sea are another concern, as is development of the beachfronts where turtles nest.
But he says there is no doubt that the shrimpers' nets are a major factor. ``Our agency has documented the kill at sea, so we know it occurs,'' he says. ``The difficulty is in convincing the average shrimper, who may only catch one or two turtles a year, that the thousands of nets like his are together endangering the turtles.''
One unfortunate aspect of the TED controversy is that it has split two groups - shrimpers and turtle conservationists - who otherwise have many common goals, including a clean, productive gulf.
Margie Grunert, chairman of the Texas Shrimp and Sea Turtle Survival Coalition and owner of three shrimp boats in Port Isabel, Texas, says she believes most shrimpers want to save sea turtles. ``Our idea is that what is good for the shrimp is good for the turtle. A healthy environment will help both.'' Still, she is opposed to mandatory use of TEDs.
But Carole Allen, chairman of the Houston-based HEART - Help Endangered Animals-Ridley Turtles - says the turtles cannot wait for shrimpers to decide they are ready to do something about the turtles they kill.
``We've been told for years there would be a voluntary [TED] program, but we were naive,'' she says, a turtle decal on the lower right corner of her glasses. ``The shrimpers have used all that time fighting us, and now we say, sorry, there's no time left.
``The bottom line is that all these turtles have been protected by the Endangered Species Act since 1978,'' adds Mrs. Allen. ``That is a law for the whole United States. And if one industry can exempt itself from it, then we must admit it means nothing.''