Humble shrimper deployed ingenuity to save a species

But Sinkey was much more than a shrimp fisherman. He was a welder, a net-maker, a generous purveyor of folk wisdom and an inventor.

And one of his inventions saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of sea turtles and brought the sea turtle and shrimp fishing communities to better understand each’s motivations and needs.

Sinkey is rightfully credited with inventing a turtle excluder device (TED) that shrimpers were willing to accept. Called the “Georgia Jumper,” it was a modification of an earlier invention of Sinkey’s called the Jelly-ball excluder, a device used to keep “cannon-ball” jellyfish from clogging shrimp nets and damaging the target catch of shrimp.

He liked to call it a “trawling efficiency device” because it helped reduce the unwanted catch of many species besides sea turtles and he thought it would make other shrimpers more accepting of its use.

Sinkey’s Georgia Jumper was also an alternative to the government-created, big, clumsy, boxy-type TED that shrimpers just didn’t like and called dangerous and unworkable. Instead the Georgia Jumper resembled a giant oval-shaped BBQ grill grid that allowed shrimp to pass into the far (cod) end of the net, and directed turtles and other unwanted “by-catch” out an exit flap. It became the acceptable standard for most shrimpers.

While Sinkey had an economic interest in promoting his device, his concern for sea turtles, the shrimpers and the oceans was his strongest motivation. He opened his home, his boat and his heart to promote understanding among environmentalists, shrimpers and the public.

He worked closely with our organization to promote TED use worldwide, welcoming fishery technicians from Mexico and Central America that we recruited to work with him into his home and shop. He traveled with us to Mexico and Costa Rica to meet with shrimpers there and attended many of the annual Sea Turtle Symposiums to promote understanding.

He built a half-size shrimp net complete with TED for the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Fishing for Solution” exhibit and helped arrange interviews for the Sea Turtle Restoration Project–United Nations TEDs video that was eventually translated into several languages and distributed around the world. Sinkey and his family also helped promote the Sea Turtle Restoration Project’s groundbreaking Turtle-Safe Certification Program of the 1990s.

All in all, Sinkey’s contributions to sea turtles, the oceans and a better understanding between environmentalists and shrimpers were monumental and effective. His recent passing is a loss for the Earth.

Todd Steiner is the executive director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network in Forest Knolls, Calif.

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