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Conservationists Sue To Stop Revised Trump Sea Turtle Rule

 A new federal rule would have expanded requirements for special devices that prevent turtles, like this green sea turtle, from getting trapped in fishing nets.
A new federal rule would have expanded requirements for special devices that prevent turtles, like this green sea turtle, from getting trapped in fishing nets.

Conservation groups sued the National Marine Fisheries Service Tuesday to block a new rule protecting turtles, and significantly weakened by the Trump administration.

The rule, originally proposed by the Obama administration in 2016, is set to go into effect on Aug. 1 and would have expanded the use of special nets by shrimpers.

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But in its lawsuit, Earthjustice said the Trump administration ignored data used by the Fisheries Service to justify requiring the nets on a larger number of fishing devices and smaller boats.

Instead, the administration revised the rule to exclude many of the original provisions, said Earthjustice attorney Chris Eaton.

“The science shows these nets are effective, that they would prevent thousands of sea turtle deaths per year,” he said. “And the agency's justification for basically pulling a 180 and implementing a very partial rule — they haven't provided any real evidence or rational basis for doing that.”

When sea turtles were added to the endangered species list in 1978, the Fisheries Service said shrimp trawling, that used nets, was the leading cause of death in the Gulf of Mexico.

“If you think about shrimp trawlers, they're pulling this net through the water and scooping up shrimp,” Eaton said. “At the same time, you've got these sea turtles also getting caught in these nets and sea turtles need to breathe air.”

So scientists began designing devices — called turtle excluder devices or TEDs — to keep turtles out. By the 1990s, the number of deaths in nets had dropped by 90%, according to a 2011 Duke University study.

But the rule only applied to trawlers used in deep water, where most shrimp are netted. Boats that use other devices in shallow water, inhabited by younger turtles, were instead required to check the nets for turtles periodically. The agency estimated that up to 2,900 turtles were still being killed in these other devices.

Enforcing the checks was difficult, the Fisheries Service said in 2016 when it first proposed changing the rule. The agency had also received reports that many boats were ignoring the rule.

The Service said changing the rules could reduce the deaths by 1,700 — to 2,500.

In the lawsuit, filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and the Turtle Island Restoration Network, Earthjustice said the Service issued the revised rule without any notice. They said the agency also failed to consider the consequences of the changes to the rule.

"You've got to rely on the best available science,” Eaton said. “And what we see in this final rule is that they're ignoring the science.”

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Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.