HOUSTON — Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher ignored both his scientific experts and department lawyers when he allowed shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico to discard devices designed to save sea turtles that are on the endangered species list, according to Commerce Department documents.
Mosbacher acted Monday after a meeting with a number of Gulf Coast congressmen and after a weekend in which shrimpers blockaded shipping lanes in Houston and other coastal cities. The shrimpers were protesting the imminent imposition of federal regulations that would have required use of the devices in shrimp nets.
Acceded to Politicians
Mosbacher acceded to the demands of the politicians and shrimpers and ordered that so-called turtle excluder devices would not have to be used for at least the next three months, during the height of the shrimping season.
South Carolina is one of several states that have successfully used the excluder devices, commonly known as TEDs, designed to allow turtles to escape while keeping shrimp in the nets. During the first two weeks in July, turtle deaths off the Carolina coast were down dramatically. Only six dead sea turtles were documented, compared to an average of 56 during the same period over the last nine years.
Shrimpers along the Texas and Louisiana coasts contend that they will lose up to a third of their catches if the excluder devices are placed in the nets because the shrimp would escape with the turtles.
The major species that the TED is designed to protect is the Kemp ridley sea turtle. One estimate is that there may be only 260 egg-laying females in the world, down from 40,000 a generation ago. When Mosbacher was asked Monday if political pressure had caused him to change his mind, he replied that he had altered the regulations because it was "the right thing to do."
Rep. W. J. (Billy) Tauzin (D-La.), who convened the Monday meeting, said that most of the time was spent convincing the commerce secretary that he was empowered to change the regulations. "Mosbacher has that authority," he said.
An internal Commerce Department memo and a letter by Mosbacher himself showed that department scientists and lawyers were opposed to the change in the regulations.
In a memo from B. Kent Burton, an official of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Mosbacher was told: "The only reasonable and prudent alternative which will allow shrimping to continue without jeopardizing the continued existence of identified sea turtle species is full implementation of the TED regulations."
The memo was based on a "biological opinion" written by Terry Henwood of the National Marine Fisheries Service protected species branch.
"I'm totally amazed" at Mosbacher's decision, Henwood said Wednesday.
On July 20, just four days before changing the regulations, Mosbacher wrote a letter to Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), saying that "my legal counsel has advised me there is no basis in current law for modifications in the existing regulations."
"This . . . is in turn compelled by the best scientific advice from NOAA that any significant modification of the TEDs regulations would jeopardize the continued existence of the Kemp ridley turtles as a species," Mosbacher said.
The easing of the rules regarding the use of TEDs caused an immediate outcry in the environmental community. The National Wildlife Federation filed suit late Tuesday afternoon seeking a restraining order against Mosbacher's new stance. A hearing is set for Friday in Washington.
In the suit, the wildlife federation said that the Commerce Department failed to consider the environmental impact of the postponement; didn't seek adequate public comment, violated the Endangered Species Act by placing the Kemp ridley turtle in jeopardy and violated the provision of the act that calls for changes only if they are for "good cause."
Mosbacher could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Steven Moyer, a legislative representative with the wildlife federation, said that Mosbacher's decision may "have helped fan the flames" in the volatile Gulf issue. Other environmental groups expressed similar misgivings, saying that, if the original regulations are restored, it could lead to violence if the Coast Guard attempts to cite shrimpers for non-compliance.
"The news reports we've been getting (are) that the shrimpers are prepared to blockade again and use violence," said Michael Weber of the Center for Environmental Education.
The prime mover in the fight against the use of TEDs is Louisiana shrimper Tee John Mialjavich, president of an organization called Concerned Shrimpers of America. Mialjavich said that, no matter what the outcome of the Washington court hearing, he and other shrimpers would not use TEDs.
"We're not the villains, we're the victims," he said. He accused federal biologists of promoting TEDs even though their data was faulty.