Federal fisheries officials are investigating whether aggressive shrimpers or other fishermen are causing the deaths of endangered sea turtles that have been washing up on Gulf Coast beaches with no signs of oil, an official said Wednesday.
Investigators will look at whether some shrimp boats taking part in an emergency shrimping season ahead of the Gulf oil spill removed devices from their nets that are intended to allow turtles to escape, said Sheryan Epperly, sea turtle team leader for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"The agency has been trying to collect information on not just the trawling fisheries but any other fishing that may have been going on in the area," Epperly said. "If the turtle excluder device is not properly used, then that likely could lead to the deaths of any turtles that get caught in the nets."
Wildlife officials say at least 35 endangered sea turtles have washed up on Gulf coast beaches, but it's not clear what's killing them. Necropsies have shown no signs of oil.
Given the endangered status of Kemp's ridley sea turtles, among the most imperiled turtles in the world, tissues samples being collected and examined are being "kept in the chain of custody ... in the event that it could end up in court," Epperly said.
She said officials with either state or federal agencies are looking into whether the turtle excluder devices were removed in the fishermen's' haste to gather the catch.
"I know it's being investigated," she said.
The Washington, D.C.-based conservation group Oceana has said officials need to determine what is killing the turtles quickly. Some experts have speculated they may have eaten fish contaminated by the oil spill.
"It's a good question," BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said. "Is the oil killing these turtles or not?"
Shrimping has long been blamed for sea turtle deaths. Shrimpers are required to install grid-like devices in their nets that are designed to allow turtles to escape. Shrimpers caught without the turtle excluder devices — or TEDs — may be fined thousands of dollars and have their catch seized by federal regulators.