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TEDs for All Trawls: A Net Positive for Fishermen & Sea Turtles

1 May 2016

Global estimates show that fishermen are discarding as much as 40 percent of what they catch, totaling nearly 63 billion pounds every year of wasted fish and ocean wildlife. Experts say one type of fishing in particular, shrimp trawling, has one of the highest bycatch rates among current fishing practices in the world. This can be seen in the United States, where, in 2013, the Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawl fishery discarded an estimated 242 million pounds of seafood and ocean wildlife - about 62 percent of its total catch. In fact, if the fish were of marketable size, the value of the discarded catch in the Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawl fishery would equate to more than $350 million in wasted fish. Additionally, according to government estimates, Southeast shrimp trawl nets come into contact with endangered and threatened sea turtles half-a-million times a year, potentially resulting in 50,000 deaths.

But what if there was an easy step our government could take to help ensure that our domestic, wildcaught shrimp was more sustainably caught? A simple solution comes in the form of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), which are metal grates positioned inside the openings of shrimp nets that allow turtles to escape, preventing them from drowning. Shrimp slip through the grate’s bars into the sack at the end of the net, while turtles, sharks, rays, crabs and larger, non-target fish can go free. When used properly, TEDs are 97 percent effective at allowing captured turtles to escape.

If the U.S. takes appropriate actions to reduce bycatch in the Southeast shrimp trawl fishery by requiring TEDs in all nets, Americans could feel better about eating domestic shrimp, and other countries could feel pressure to do the same in order to compete with the high standards of American shrimp. This win-win conservation action will not only yield immediate economic and ecological value at home, but could also have long-term environmental benefits on a global scale.

Currently, many fishermen in the Southeast use TEDs, but about 2,400 boats are allowed to operate in the region without them. Many retailers and other seafood buyers, including Whole Foods, have made a commitment to buy sustainably caught seafood. However, due to the lack of a TED requirement in a portion of the shrimp fishery, some U.S. domestic shrimp is considered a poor choice by seafood buying guides. If the fishery were to require TEDs for all trawls, more markets would be open to U.S. shrimp, and buyers would no longer consider it a product to avoid.

In addition, in the past two years, the government has tested a new, improved TED design that reduced fish bycatch by an additional 25 percent and could help save even more sea turtles—particularly younger turtles that are smaller and might otherwise slip through the larger spacing on traditional TEDs. Reducing fish discards in this way could allow populations to rebuild and support healthier commercial and recreational fisheries.

Decreasing fish bycatch in the shrimp fishery would benefit other fishermen by reducing pressure on already struggling commercial and recreational fisheries. Of the 242 million pounds of fish discarded by Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawls, almost 90 million pounds are species known to be valuable to other fishermen, such as red snapper, Atlantic croaker and red drum. Indeed, if those 90 million pounds of fish had been of marketable size and landed in their respective commercial fisheries, their value would have exceeded $350 million (see Appendix 1). The fish that do not end up in shrimp trawls are free to be caught by other anglers and commercial fishermen if they survive to marketable size.

Reducing sea turtle bycatch will also benefit those who depend on tourism for their livelihoods. Sea turtles play a variety of important ecological roles, including helping maintain the health of seagrass beds, coral reefs and beaches. Healthier and more abundant oceans draw divers, beach-goers and recreational anglers. Secondly, sea turtles themselves bring in a significant amount of tourism dollars to the Southeast. Sea turtle tourism attracts more than 500,000 visitors to the region annually, providing direct income to local residents through tours and dives, but also through other travel expenditures like lodging, food, transportation and fuel. In a two-month time period, turtle walks contributed about $250,000 to the local economy in just two counties in Florida.

TEDs are simple devices that can do a great amount of good—protect marine life, open new markets for shrimpers, boost nature-based tourism, and leave more fish in the sea for other fisheries—but only if they are used, and used properly.

In order to protect endangered and threatened sea turtles, reduce fish bycatch and protect coastal naturebased tourism economies, President Obama should direct the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to:

 Require all exempt shrimp trawls to use smaller-spaced TEDs;

 Require all trawls that currently use TEDs to transition to smaller-spaced TEDs; and

 Increase observer coverage in the Southeast shrimp trawl fishery to monitor the amount of sea turtles caught, as well as the amount of fish that is wasted.


Forrest Gump was on to something: shrimp is the most popular seafood in the United States. The average American consumes more than 4 pounds of shrimp every year. The U.S. shrimp trawl fishery generates more than $680 million annually, making it the second most valuable domestic fishery, with the majority of domestic shrimp caught in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. In 2014, these states produced nearly 207 million pounds of shrimp, generating nearly $588 million in revenue for local fishermen. This represents 70 percent of all wild-caught American shrimp and accounts for 86 percent of the total value. 

Overall, however, 90 percent of the shrimp consumed in the U.S., both wild-caught and farm-raised, is imported. Concerns over these imports are growing. Recent news stories have exposed illegal antibiotic and pesticide use in farm-raised shrimp, as well as human rights abuses in the shrimp fishery in Southeast Asia.

The domestic shrimp fishery has its own issues. Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawlers are responsible for more bycatch than any other U.S. fishery, as 62 percent of what comes up in these shrimpers’ nets is discarded, amounting to 242 million pounds of wasted sea life. Threatened and endangered sea turtles are especially impacted. Overall, the Southeast shrimp trawl fishery, encompassing both the Gulf and South Atlantic, is responsible for more sea turtle deaths than any other fishery, as the government estimates that more than 50,000 sea turtles could be killed every year. 

While current bycatch rates for the U.S. shrimp trawl fishery are high, the fishery has made improvements in recent decades. The bycatch rate for shrimp trawl nets 30 years ago was more than 90 percent, but this began to decrease as more shrimpers started employing Bycatch Reduction Devices and TEDs.

Despite these bycatch improvements, however, more needs to be done. TED requirements are inconsistent from state to state and between different gear types. Currently, all U.S. shrimp trawls are required to use TEDs except approximately 2,400 boats that operate in U.S. waters with skimmer, pusher-head or butterfly trawl nets. These nets – often used in shallow waters – are held open by metal frames and are either pulled or pushed through the water. The lack of a TED requirement for these vessels concerns seafood sustainability groups like Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, the publishers of a popular consumer guide that assigns the most commonly consumed seafood into the categories ― "Avoid" (red), ― "Good Alternative" (yellow) or ― "Best Choice" (green). These designations are based on criteria like the health of the fishery, the type of gear used, chemical and pesticide use in aquaculture operations and bycatch rates. None of the wild-caught shrimp from the Southeast are labeled ― "Best Choice" by Seafood Watch. In fact, shrimp from the skimmer trawl fishery, with the exception of Florida, are marked as ― "Avoid" due to the lack of a government-enforced TED requirement. This red-list designation prevents these fishermen from selling shrimp to about 13,000 retailers across the country that have refused to source any red-listed seafood product.

In place of a TED requirement, the Southeast skimmer trawl fishery is required to enact tow-time restrictions. 16 Tow-time restrictions require shrimpers to bring the nets out of the water at certain time intervals to be checked for entangled turtles, preventing their drowning. In practice, however, tow-time restrictions have been shown to be ineffective. A 2006 study found that to be as effective as TEDs, tow times would have to be limited to just 10 minutes, and that any longer ―resulted in rapid escalations in mortality. Not only are the current time requirements of 55 to 75 minutes too long to adequately prevent turtle deaths, but they are also difficult to enforce. In fact, observer coverage of skimmer trawl fisheries in the Northern Gulf of Mexico between May and June 2012 found that only 35 percent of tows were within the required 55-minute tow-time limit.

Additionally, the Southeast shrimp trawl fishery is only required to have observers onboard their boats for 2 percent of its fishing trips each year. In 2012, NOAA reported that there were 22,985 days of skimmer trawl fishing, but just 119 of those days had observer coverage — roughly 0.5 percent, or one-quarter, of the coverage required. Furthermore, NOAA’s own scientists have reported that legally required towtime restrictions were often ignored by fishermen even when they knew they were being observed. As evidenced by lengthy tow times, minimal observer coverage and even flagrant flouting of the rules, towtime restrictions have proven to be largely ineffective at preventing sea turtle deaths.  

A Simple Solution In the early 1980s, NOAA, shrimpers and environmental groups combined efforts to design a new type of gear meant to reduce incidental captures of sea turtles. This collaboration resulted in the development of the first TED, and since then, NOAA has continued to test and improve the original design.

Testing conducted by NOAA in Louisiana and North Carolina waters in the last two years showed that reducing the space between the bars of a TED, from the standard 4 inches to 3 inches, can save a considerable number of smaller sea turtles and reduce fish bycatch by an additional 25 percent. Additionally, a 2014 report found that TEDs with even more narrowly spaced flat bars (2 inches) effectively reduced bycatch, while maintaining similar shrimp catch rates. These experiments also demonstrated an overall reduction in the total weight of sharks, rays, skates and horseshoe crabs captured. These long-term benefits come at a relatively low upfront cost of roughly $400 per TED.

The Southeast shrimp trawl fishery discards more fish and kills more sea turtles than any other U.S. fishery, but it does not have to continue down this path. By simply requiring all shrimp trawls to employ smaller-spaced TEDs, the U.S. government could save thousands of turtles and millions of pounds of fish annually. President Obama should direct NOAA to require all trawls to use smaller-spaced TEDs, including trawls that currently use the original TEDs, as well as increase enforcement and observer coverage in this fishery. These requirements would help sea turtle populations recover, open new markets to Southeast shrimp fishermen, reduce fish bycatch and help maintain a strong tourism industry. Such a simple solution that has so many benefits should be taken seriously.

TEDs Would Benefit Shrimpers

It is no coincidence that shrimpers were among the groups responsible for the development of TEDs, as the devices directly benefit them in several ways. TEDs not only reduce fish bycatch, but may also reduce fuel costs as well as grant shrimpers access to retail markets that only buy shrimp from fisheries that are not red-listed.  

Some fishermen in the skimmer trawl fishery already voluntarily use TEDs. However, Florida is the only state that requires its skimmer trawl fleet to employ TEDs. Shrimp from fisheries without TED requirements (specifically skimmer) are red-listed by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch—a designation that urges consumers to ―avoid‖ these products due to high levels of bycatch. This redlisting carries weight beyond the choices of individual consumers in the grocery store. Products red-listed by Seafood Watch will not be purchased by more than 13,000 retail outlets across the country, including the supermarket Whole Foods.

Because the state of Florida requires TEDs in all of its shrimp trawls, including skimmers, Florida shrimpers enjoy access to these large and growing markets. A federal requirement for TEDs in all trawls would likely prompt Seafood Watch to remove the ― "avoid" designation and list all Southeast shrimp as a ― "good alternative" (yellow), opening up markets and ultimately benefitting shrimpers, wholesalers, retailers and all the players throughout the U.S. seafood supply chain.

A recent example of Seafood Watch changing the status of a product came as a result of shrimpers themselves pushing for enforcement of a TED requirement. Until last year, shrimp landed by Louisiana otter trawls were red-listed by Seafood Watch, due to a 1987 state law that prevented the enforcement of TED use in these nets. With no enforcement, Seafood Watch was not able to verify that Louisiana otter trawls were actually using TEDs, so the shrimp remained red-listed until July 2015. That summer, the state law preventing enforcement of the federal TED requirement was repealed at the behest of the Louisiana Shrimp Task Force – a group of shrimp industry stakeholders that voted unanimously to support federal enforcement. As a result, shrimp from the Louisiana otter trawl fishery are now considered a ― "good alternative" by Seafood Watch, and those shrimpers today have access to thousands of new buyers across the country.

TEDs have other direct benefits to shrimpers. A 2006 study demonstrated that the reduction of bycatch as a result of TED use reduces the time that crews had to spend sorting out the targeted shrimp from other non-target species. In addition, studies have shown that TEDs, like other Bycatch Reduction Devices, may reduce fuel consumption. The act of pulling the net behind the boat accounts for 70 percent of the fuel used by shrimping vessels, however, Bycatch Reduction Devices have been found to cut the amount of drag on the net, thus reducing the drag on the boat and gear. Decreasing this drag could also reduce the amount of money that boat captains have to spend on fuel.

A fishery-wide TED requirement in the Southeast would allow shrimp buyers to purchase U.S. shrimp with more confidence. With an official requirement, all shrimpers in the Southeast would have access to buyers that previously had avoided some shrimp from the region. This benefit would be in addition to protecting sea turtles, shortened sort times and potentially reduced fuel costs for shrimpers.

One (Fisher)man’s Trash is Another (Fisher)man’s Treasure

Employing the new, smaller-spaced TEDs on all shrimp trawls can also benefit other fishermen in the Southeast by potentially reducing bycatch by 60 million pounds annually, easing pressure on populations of fish that are targeted by anglers and commercial fishermen.  

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawl fishery’s bycatch in 2013 accounted for 62 percent of the total fishery catch, meaning the weight of bycatch exceeded the weight of the shrimp landed by almost 100 million pounds. Of the 242 million pounds of discards in 2013, almost two-thirds were unspecified fish, crustaceans and other invertebrates. The remaining onethird – almost 90 million pounds – included valuable species such as red snapper, Atlantic croaker and red drum. If that 90 million pounds comprised fish that had been of marketable size and landed in their respective commercial fisheries, its value would have exceeded $350 million (see Appendix 1).

Red snapper are among the most highly valued species discarded by the Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawl fishery. In 2013, the fishery discarded about 16.5 million red snappers, the majority of which were under 1 year old and measured less than 5 inches long. Red snapper is considered overfished, yet discards amounted to almost 1.5 million pounds – equal to nearly 30 percent of the commercial red snapper fishery catch. If all of these fish had been of legal marketable size (16 inches), the market value would have been more than $5.7 million. Though most juveniles do not survive to be caught by the directed fishery, NOAA and other scientists acknowledge the negative impact the shrimp trawl fishery can have on the red snapper population and suggest that a reduction in trawl bycatch may increase snapper abundance.

Over 52 million pounds of Atlantic croaker were also discarded by Gulf shrimp trawls in 2013. This is 367 times more croaker than was landed in the commercial fishery and 82.5 times the amount landed by recreational anglers. If that discarded catch had been of marketable size – not predominantly juveniles – and sold at market rate, the value of that bycatch would have been over $311 million. Indeed, the impact of this incidental catch on the Atlantic croaker population is significant. In reviewing the status of Atlantic croaker, fishery experts cited inadequate discard data as complicating the assessment, but added that reducing the bycatch was the most viable path toward returning the stock to its historic highs.

Minimizing the bycatch of commercially valuable fish in the Southeast shrimp trawl fishery would potentially benefit both commercial fishermen and recreational anglers. Four of the top 10 species by weight for all U.S. recreational fish catch—red drum, red snapper, spotted sea trout and Spanish mackerel—are frequently discarded in large amounts in the Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawl fishery. Though the federal government sets quotas for most of those species every year in their own fisheries, their bycatch in the shrimp fishery continues to be largely unregulated and uncapped. Even after red snapper fishermen have met their quotas and ended their season, hundreds of thousands of pounds of snapper continue to be caught in shrimpers’ nets and discarded. Requiring TEDs with reduced bar spacing could prevent the bycatch of millions of pounds of valuable fish. Less bycatch could mean healthier fish populations and, ultimately, more productive recreational and commercial fisheries.

Economic Benefit of Sea Turtles

Not only have sea turtles helped maintain healthy seagrass beds and coral reefs for more than 65 million years, but they also attract tourists to coastal towns in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, providing these communities with measurable economic benefits. Nature-based tourism provides direct income to local residents through tours and dives and through other travel spending like lodging, food, transportation and fuel. For example, more than 11.5 million tourists visited Gulf states in 2011 for wildlife viewing, spending $6.5 billion and generating $2 billion in federal, state and local taxes. 

Sea turtle tourism attracts over 500,000 visitors to coastal communities in the Southeast annually (see Appendix 2). Tourists can observe sea turtles by scuba diving, participating in sea turtle nesting walks, and visiting injured sea turtles at rehabilitation centers. In Florida alone, there are 23 centers that host turtle walks that attract a total of 10,000 visitors annually. During the 2013 nesting season, approximately 3,600 tourists participated in turtle walks in Brevard and Indian River Counties in Florida. These sea turtle walks contributed about $250,000 to the local economy of those counties in just two months. 

Many people also enjoy the experience of seeing turtles that were once sick or injured being rehabilitated and released back to the wild. The Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Florida hosted 75,000 visitors to view turtles in 2015, the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center had 82,400 visitors in their facility last year, and 120,000 visitors attended sea turtle release events hosted by Sea Turtle Inc. on South Padre Island, TX. 58 Release events like these often attract up to 1,000 people at a time (See Appendix 2).

Scuba diving is another popular way for tourists to appreciate sea turtles. Divers contribute to local economies by renting and buying equipment or filling tanks at dive shops and resorts. Many travelers choose their vacation destinations based on proximity to dive sites. In a study conducted in 2008 by Oceana, in collaboration with Duke University, scuba divers indicated a great desire to dive with sea turtles, and 76 percent of all divers who responded said they would be willing to pay, on average, an additional $29.63 for each dive in which they had the chance to see a sea turtle.

A 2012 study collected data from 8,476 randomly selected households in the U.S. and found that respondents were willing to pay an average of $44 per household per year for 10 years to support the recovery of the loggerhead sea turtle and $68 for the recovery of leatherback sea turtles. Residents of and visitors to North Carolina’s Bald Head Island were willing to pay, on average, $58 per year to support the management and protection of nesting sea turtles on the island.

Sea turtles play an important role in Southeast coastal tourism sectors. Expansion and enforcement of TED use, along with the adoption of TED models that feature narrower-bar spacing, will allow more turtles to escape shrimper’s nets alive. As more sea turtles survive, populations can be restored and thrive so tourists can continue to observe sea turtles for generations to come.


Turtle Excluder Devices benefit shrimp fishermen by reducing sort times and allowing them to access additional markets. But TEDs are also good for other fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico. Fewer fish caught as bycatch in shrimp nets means more fish in the ocean that could be caught by recreational and commercial fishers. Universal deployment of smaller-spaced TEDs could save thousands of sea turtles annually, contributing to a robust coastal tourism sector. Many shrimpers are already voluntarily using TEDs on their skimmer trawls, and they should be rewarded for their commitment to preserving healthy oceans by gaining access to buyers that require verification of TED enforcement.  

In order to protect endangered and threatened sea turtles, reduce fish bycatch and protect coastal naturebased tourism economies, President Obama should direct NOAA to:

 Require all exempt shrimp trawls to use smaller-spaced TEDs;

 Require all trawls that currently use TEDs to transition to smaller-spaced TEDs; and

 Increase observer coverage in the Southeast shrimp trawl fishery to monitor the amount of sea turtles caught, as well as the amount of fish that is discarded.

This is a common-sense solution: TEDS for all trawls, featuring the most up-to-date, narrow bar-spacing design would benefit shrimpers, turtles, Southeast residents and businesses, and visitors to the region. Such a requirement is a win-win solution that needs to be adopted by the Obama administration and the Department of Commerce, which oversees NOAA.

It is not often that we encounter a conservation action that yields such immediate and substantial benefits—both for the environment as well as regional economies. It is time for the U.S. government to take a stand and implement this change and implement TEDs in all trawls.


The authors would like to thank the following individuals for their contributions during the development and review of this report: Eric Bilsky, Gib Brogan, Alicia Cate, Dustin Cranor, Beth Lowell, Dr. Kathryn Matthews, Dr. Michael Orbach, Jacqueline Savitz, Avery Siciliano, Stephanie Stefanski and Amelia Vorpahl 

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