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At Loggerheads

The Endangered Species Act is a controversial directive. The snail darter and spotted owl have gleaned no end of headlines, having been used to justify the preservation of huge areas of habitat. Less well known is the plight of our sea turtles, large amphibians that are in particular danger when they enter the shallows in the spring in preparation for breeding and laying their eggs in beach sand.

Shrimpers towing their nets in these same areas often catch, and occasionally drown, the turtles. Other dangers exist, of course: recreational boaters, plastic debris that the turtles mistake for food, and, more broadly, pollution and beachfront development. Still, it is the shrimpers who bear the burden of environmental legislation, being required to draw turtle excluder devices, otherwise known as TEDs. The TEDs do seem to work, as fewer dead turtles wash up on the beaches. But the devices cut the shrimp catch by 10 to 15 percent, which in hard times can eliminate the profit. Also, the TEDs must be pulled in places where, and seasons when, turtles are seldom caught. Who are threatened more, the turtles or the shrimpers?

That is the question being asked by these Louisiana sociologists, and though at the beginning they claim scientific objectivity, the very fact they are asking at all suggests populist sympathies. The environmental problems are very real, and fishing techniques are indeed wasteful, but why have shrimpers suddenly...

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