CORRECTIONS: Federal law enforcement authorities boarded a trawler Friday in an ongoing investigation and enforcement operation. Because of an editor's error, the headline on Page B-1 Saturday describing the boarding was incorrect.
BRUNSWICK -- An estimated 4,000 pounds of fresh shrimp were seized Friday by federal authorities from a Fernandina Beach trawler that investigators said failed to have a mandatory turtle excluder in one of its fishing nets.
The 77-foot Miss Coral J, a steel-hulled commercial slab trawler, was boarded about 10 a.m. in federal waters about five miles offshore of St. Simons Island by the U.S. Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration law enforcement special agents.
"Fortunately, it was still alive. We were able to release it back into the water," said Mark Dodd, DNR sea turtle program coordinator.
Dodd said the trawler was pulling a large "try net" that didn't have a turtle excluder device, which is required by federal and state law for a fishing net of that size.
"The case now goes to NOAA fisheries for prosecution," Warr said. "They will sell the catch for fair market value, and the proceeds will be forfeited to NOAA."
Because they were off-loading the shrimp, the trawler's captain and crew weren't available for comment Friday night. Their names weren't immediately released by federal authorities because the investigation is ongoing.
Warr said the captain and crew have been cooperative and offered no resistance to the boarding.
"They are not being arrested, and are not going to jail. The catch has just been seized," Warr said.
The boarding was part of Operation Shellback, an ongoing multi-agency investigation and enforcement effort stemming from the recent discovery of a near-record number of dead sea turtles on Southeast Georgia beaches.
The Coast Guard and NOAA agents began checking shrimp trawlers on Wednesday. They are attempting to ensure that the vessels are in compliance with federal and state laws requiring the use of fully functioning turtle excluder devices in their fishing nets.
Those devices, when installed properly, allow sea turtles to quickly and automatically escape if swept up in the huge trawling nets.
"We're not here to cast blame. This is a compliance check. Our goal was to find out if TEDs are being used, and if they are being used properly," Warr said.
"We are working with NOAA fisheries and focusing our efforts on areas where the dead turtles have been showing up," Warr said.
The bodies of 45 decomposing turtles, including Kemp's ridley, green, leatherback and loggerhead, were found last week from Tybee Island south to Cumberland Sound. An additional 28 dead turtles washed ashore this week, said Adam Mackinnon, a DNR wildlife technician and sea turtle researcher.
Those turtles appeared well-fed, had no visible injuries or any other obvious reason to be dead, Dodd said.
Dodd said scientists suspect that most of the turtles drowned as a result of commercial shrimp trawls operating in federal waters. That prompted the investigation and compliance checks by the Coast Guard and NOAA fisheries agents.
Georgia's territorial waters, which extend 3 miles offshore, are closed to commercial and recreational shrimping. Because of security measures, state waters aren't expected to open to shrimpers until after the G-8 Summit, which is June 8-10 on Sea Island, DNR officials have said.
However, commercial shrimping is ongoing in federal waters.
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