Why Louisiana shrimps aren’t thrilled with this national rating

A globally recognized seafood sustainability rating program that drew the ire of Maine lobstermen and politicians recently is now the focus of complaints from Louisiana shrimp industry voices.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s annual Seafood Watch, which rates species available to consumers based on sustainability, red-listed US and Canadian East Coast lobsters in its latest report, advising consumers to avoid them. The aquarium maintains that the fishery’s gear puts highly endangered Right whales at risk.

The same report provides its second-best rating – a yellow “good alternative” listing – to most Gulf of Mexico shrimp.

Shrimpers and others in the industry say the rating system fails to account for steps they have taken to reduce bycatch and to make their fishing practices safe for endangered sea turtles, including the addition of turtle excluder devices on skimmer boats that fish inside waters.

The report holds sway with chefs and commercial seafood buyers whose clientele favor sustainable, environmentally friendly products.

“Shrimp fisheries from North Carolina to Texas received a Good Alternative rating where turtle excluder devices were regulated and enforced,” a Seafood Watch spokesman said in response to a query from The Courier and the Daily Comet. “Where they are not required, the fishery received an ‘Avoid’ rating. While fisheries required to use TEDs have scored better, further bycatch mitigation would be required for these fisheries to be Green rated.”

Seafood Watch acknowledged a reduction in sea turtle deaths from the use of turtle excluder devices, known as TEDs. But the group states the fishery is still estimated to be the leading cause of sea turtle bycatch deaths in the US

Kimberly Chauvin, co-owner of David Chauvin’s Seafood Company, with operations in Dulac and Cocodrie, bristled at the fishery’s Seafood Watch ratings.

“They are not being fair to an industry that has bent over backward to do what is required of us,” Chauvin said, noting that TEDs not only prevent turtles from entering nets but also protect a large number of fish species.

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She and other industry representatives maintain that Seafood Watch is not doing enough data examination to determine just how far the industry has come.

At her docks, Chauvin said, shrimp caught by big trawlers and large skimmer boats – those required to have TEDs in their nets – is sold in boxes marked “Turtle Safe.” Such moves, she said, should be better recognized by those grading on sustainability. A “green light” rating for categories of Gulf shrimp, she maintains, can aid businesses that take sustainability seriously and encourage further innovations in the fishery.

At David Chauvin's Seafood Company in Terrebonne Parish, shrimp caught by big trawlers and large skimmer boats – those required to have turtle exclude devices in their nets – is sold in boxes marked “Turtle Safe.”  A bag of shrimp at the company displays the emblem at lower left.

Like others in the shrimp industry, Chauvin said that while she would like to see a better Seafood Watch listing for the region’s shrimp, she is not overly worried. She cannot recall any of her buyers, commercial or otherwise, ever asking about sustainability, although she would be happy to share the strides the industry has made.

George Barisich, president of the United Commercial Fishermen’s Association and himself a longtime Louisiana shrimp, said his own data show a dramatic increase in sea turtle populations. He said by catch reduction is something he would like to share with the aquarium.

“The turtles have made out fine; the only ones with a loss is us,” Barisich said. “Years ago, when the TEDs issue came up, we had 30,000 shrimps in Louisiana, and now we are down to 6,000. Back then, there were 800 turtle-nesting sites, and now the data shows at least 22,000 nesting sites. Theoretically, my numbers are reduced to such a low point that if I built a net to target turtles there would not be enough for us to catch them.”

The Seafood Watch spokesman said there is an open door for evaluation of further data.

A shrimp boat plies the waters of southern Terrebonne Parish.

“Our evaluations are based on publicly available data,” the spokesman said. “We always welcome more-granular data if it is available and can separate out portions of a fishery if there is documented evidence of different environmental performance. … Per our assessment process, Seafood Watch will update these shrimp assessments if we receive data or information that suggests an overall rating is no longer correct.”

Grand Isle shrimp processor Dean Blanchard said suggestions that the shrimp fishery is less than sustainable are “a big insult” considering the work and sacrifices fishermen have made toward turtle and bycatch protection.

“I’ve sold shrimp for 50-something years and nobody ever asked me if my shrimp was sustainable,” Blanchard said. “Fishermen have been around since before the days of Jesus, so we got to be sustainable.”

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