It’s hard to think of two species more beloved on the North Carolina coast than shrimp and sea turtles.
A generations-old low country diet had turned shrimp into a multi-million dollar industry for North Carolina fishermen. Sea turtles, on the other hand, have become the symbol of coastal conservation and a tourist draw at nest-hatchings and aquariums.
But to a fishing net, all animals are the same. To protect endangered sea turtles, many shrimp boats in the Southeast are equipped with “turtle excluder devices” (TEDs), barred openings that let captured turtles shimmy out of nets.
TEDs are not required on some shrimp boats, but a rule proposed this month by the National Marine Fisheries Service would put them on more shrimp trawlers from North Carolina to Texas.
The proposal comes after a 2015 lawsuit from environmental group Oceana, which accused the federal government of violating the Endangered Species Act by not regulating shrimp fishing more stringently. Fishermen, for their part, say they are regulated enough and have gone out of their way to help turtle populations recover up and down the coast.
“North Carolina shrimp is our biggest-selling item in all markets, our most important product,” said Joe Romano, a commercial fisherman and co-owner of Wilmington-based Seaview Crab Company. “We have a system to do this, and it’s already working.”
The government estimates 7,900 sea turtles are captured annually by the types of shrimp trawlers covered by the proposed rule. The majority of captures happen in the Gulf of Mexico, which has a shrimp fishery many times larger than North Carolina’s.
At the same time as the federal proposal, North Carolina officials are weighing shrimp restrictions sought by another environmental group. In November the N.C. Wildlife Federation petitioned the state Marine Fisheries Commission to limit trawling times and put new restrictions on gear. That petition is not aimed specifically at turtles, but at protecting juvenile fish.
“The amount of finfish bycatch in the North Carolina shrimp trawl fishery is unsustainably high, and the negative impact of shrimp trawl bycatch is felt coast wide,” the petition states. “North Carolina is the only state on the East Coast to allow shrimp trawling in its sounds and estuaries.”
Romano said he reached out to the environmental groups behind the North Carolina petition to urge them to bring more fishermen into the conversation.
“This is just one more string in a series of petitions, and you don’t understand that we’re already kind of with our backs against the walls,” he said.
The federal government estimates its proposal, if approved, would cost shrimp boats in the South Atlantic an estimated $146 to $1,365 in yearly revenue, compared with $1,085 to $2,383 for Gulf shrimpers. In 2015 shrimp earned North Carolina fisherman $16.8 million, making it the second-most valuable catch after hard-shelled blue crabs, which fetched $29.6 million.
Romano said any new regulations for shrimp boats would impact the supply. But he’s more bothered that the issue has been framed as fishermen opposed to conservation, something most watermen would argue is sacred.
“Every time these issues get reduced to commercial fishermen versus someone else, it skews the issue and makes people take sides,” he said. “We can have both.”