Shrimpers: We're not to blame for sea turtle deaths

OCEAN SPRINGS, MS (WLOX) - The federal government says too many endangered turtles are dying in the northern Gulf. A NOAA fisheries service report lays the blame on the shrimping industry. Stricter regulations on that industry will now be considered to lower the mortality rate of the turtles.

But many Mississippi Gulf Coast shrimpers feel they are being unfairly targeted.

Jay Bond has been shrimping for 40 years.  Despite what the government says about high the mortality rate of turtles in shrimp nets, he isn't buying it.

"I haven't caught any in my skimmer nets," Bond said. "I pick up every 20 minutes and I haven't seen the first turtle. Period."

Sixty-year-old Ricky Ross just returned from a trip in the Gulf. His ice chests are loaded with the day's catch. One thing he didn't catch was a turtle.

"We haven't seen any turtles, we haven't caught any turtles," Ross said. "I'm still going to use the TEDs [turtle excluder devices]. That's what we have to do, then that's what we'll do."

The life of a shrimper is tough enough, without any additional burdens. Some feel they are being treated like desperados by the government.

"They are blaming it all on the shrimpers, and it's not the shrimpers," Ross said. "The turtles were dying, more were dying before the shrimpers even got to go work."

Further down the docks, Robert Ross contemplates his future in an industry that is struggling to survive.  His frustration is clearly evident.

"I heard they caught turtles with fishhooks in them. So why not make the fishermen put turtle excluders on their fishhooks?" Robert Ross asked. "Or either do something besides pick on us. I know for sure over the years that we ain't doing this. We're being blamed for something."

The shrimpers say the have a theory about what is to blame, and it's not surprising.

"I think it's the oil and the dispersants that are still getting them," Bond explained. "I think they are going down and swimming around and when they come up, they end up in the oil and they can't get out of it and I think they are drowning."

What's also possibly drowning is a way of life that may need a preserver to stay afloat.

Several public hearings to debate the possibly stricter regulations are scheduled in the next month.  NOAA will conduct a hearing in Biloxi at the Department of Marine Resources Office on Bayview Avenue on Wednesday, July 13th, from 4pm until 6pm.

Copyright 2011 WLOX. All rights reserved.