ABOARD THE RESEARCH VESSEL LONGHORN — When the ship was 15 miles out to sea, Tim Fontaine ordered the tons of turtles over the side.
Turtle handlers scurried for the first of the cardboard boxes that lined the deck. They cut the strapping tape, pulled off the cover and gingerly lifted the hard-shelled cargo. One by one, they dropped the turtles, each about the size of a dinner plate, into the water.
Three hours later, 1,634 more Kemp's ridley sea turtles--the rarest of all turtle species and one that is becoming more scarce each year--were swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Longhorn was headed for its dock at Port Aransas, Tex.
Fontaine, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Galveston, Tex., was already talking about the beer and champagne he would drink when he got his land legs back. It had been a busy night because one of the rental trucks used to transport the ridleys from his lab to Port Aransas had broken down.
Raised in Captivity
Now the turtles were all safely in the water. It was the end of another year of raising them from hatchlings to be released as yearlings--an attempt to save the species from extinction. Even after 10 years, success is still uncertain. Scientists have not yet determined how old the ridleys must be to mate, and so far, no new nesting grounds have been established on the Texas coast.
Each year, Kemp's ridley numbers decline. One estimate is that there may be only 600 egg-laying females left in the world, down from the 40,000 that gathered in 1947 on the Mexican beach that is still their only nesting ground.
"If something isn't done to save these turtles, they're going to disappear from the face of the earth," Fontaine said.
Few Natural Enemies
Kemp's ridley sea turtles eventually weigh between 40 and 60 pounds. They have few natural enemies once they reach the size of those dropped over the side of the Longhorn, though sharks consider them tasty fare.
Environmentalists contend that the major threat to the ridley--indeed, to all sea turtles in American waters--is the nets of some 17,000 shrimp boats that ply the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Atlantic. The green, leatherback and hawksbill turtles are also endangered species, and survival of the loggerhead sea turtle is considered threatened.
Sea turtles have been around for 185 million years, but, in one human generation, they have come to the edge of extinction in American waters.
The National Marine Fisheries Service's estimate--fiercely contested by the shrimping industry--is that 47,970 sea turtles of all varieties are caught each year in shrimp nets, and that more than 11,000 of them drown.
Environmentalists and government experts say there is an answer to the problem. It is a "turtle excluder device" or TED, a piece of equipment that can be sewn into shrimping nets to allow turtles to escape without releasing the shrimp catch. Developed by the federal government over the last decade at a cost of $3.4 million, it is due to be phased in as mandatory equipment for shrimpers beginning July 15.
But that will not happen if the shrimpers have anything to say about it. Saving the turtles is shaping up as a classic battle between the richest fishery in the United States and environmentalists, backed by government regulations, intent on putting preservation ahead of profit.
Figures Held Exaggerated
The shrimpers say the TED doesn't work--that they lose shrimp and that the devices are bulky and dangerous to have aboard. Further, they say, the TED is a government boondoggle and the turtle-kill figures are wildly exaggerated.
"We're not the culprits making these turtles disappear," said Tee John Mialjevich, president of Concerned Shrimpers of Louisiana. "They don't have any actual figures on how many turtles we catch in the gulf. I've caught six turtles since 1965, and all six went back into the water."
Mialjevich, 6 foot 4 and 327 pounds, was adamant that neither he nor any other Louisiana shrimper will ever use a TED. He said the burden of bringing back the Kemp's ridley should rest with Fontaine's turtle-stocking program.
The environmentalists say that although the shrimpers have been dragging their feet for years, it is only a matter of time until the devices are in use--and that it will be sooner rather than later. They say that the equipment does work and deny that it poses any hazard. They defend their turtle mortality figures as based on scientific calculations. They say they are determined that the sea turtles will be protected, no matter what the cost to the shrimping industry.
Shrimpers are not the worst culprits in the near-extinction of the Kemp's ridley sea turtle, just the latest. The species has only one known nesting ground, a Mexican gulf beach called Rancho Nuevo. The decimation of the turtles came mainly because their eggs are considered a delicacy and an aphrodisiac. Year after year, Mexican peasants would raid the nesting area to dig up thousands of turtle eggs and sell them.