Reducing Sea Turtle Mortality & Bycatch in Fisheries

Issue 3, 2006 Articles:

* Eastern Caribbean Hawksbill Sea Turtles Tracked as Part of New Conservation Project
* Reducing Sea Turtle Mortality & Bycatch in Fisheries

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Reducing Sea Turtle Mortality & Bycatch in Fisheries


Loggerheads are common bycatch in certain fisheries, though Turtle Excluder Devices have reduced their capture in in shrimp trawls. Photo by Bob Williams/NOAA

CCC’s new initiative on International Policy, with a focus on reducing the accidental capture of sea turtles in fisheries and promoting international accords for conservation, is now underway. This program is being spearheaded by Marydele Donnelly, CCC’s new International Policy Director, who brings to the organization a wealth of knowledge and respect in the world of international conservation. Addressing the complex issue of reducing the unintentional capture of sea turtles in fisheries, known as bycatch, requires that CCC work on many levels, with governments, regional fishery management organizations, fishermen and conservationists. This work will be carried out under Marydele’s experienced leadership from a new CCC field office based just outside Washington DC.

Each year hundreds of thousands of adult and immature sea turtles are accidentally captured in fisheries ranging from highly mechanized operations to small-scale fishermen around the world. Global estimates of annual capture, injury and mortality are staggering — 150,000 turtles of all species killed in shrimp trawls, more than 200,000 loggerheads and 50,000 leatherbacks captured, injured or killed by longlines, and large numbers of all species drowned in gill nets. The extent of gill net mortality is unknown, but sea turtle capture is significant where studied, and the drowning of sea turtles in gill nets may be comparable to trawl and longline mortality. Deaths in gill nets are particularly hard to quantify because these nets are set by uncounted numbers of local fishermen in tropical waters around the world. Other fisheries that accidentally take turtles include dredges, trawls, pound nets, pot fisheries, and hand lines.

A major impetus for CCC’s new work on fisheries is the dramatic and unexpected decline of nesting loggerhead populations in Florida since 1998. This situation is baffling because loggerheads have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1978, millions of hatchlings have reached the sea in the last several decades, and large numbers of small turtles are regularly observed in developmental habitats. So why aren’t larger animals surviving to reproduce? Longline fisheries, especially in the Eastern Atlantic but also in more northern waters, have been identified as the probable major culprit in this decline. Other U.S. and foreign fisheries, including scallop dredges, trawls, gill nets and pound nets, undoubtedly have contributed to this decline as well, but the major problem appears to be well-outside U.S. jurisdiction. This situation highlights the need to address sea turtle conservation throughout the Atlantic Ocean basin, which is one of the goals of CCC’s new program.

In the United States, sea turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Beyond U.S. waters, there is no force of law to initiate and support bycatch reduction programs. Nevertheless, the growing international interest in reducing bycatch is motivated by numerous factors such as appreciation for endangered species and concern for maintaining marine biodiversity. The economic interest in preventing future environmentally-based fishing embargoes such as the U.S. tuna embargo (a ban on foreign-caught tuna caught by setting on and killing dolphins) also encourages governments and fishermen to reduce sea turtle capture in fisheries.

Our challenge is to ensure that fishermen develop new methodology and gear to reduce bycatch because they understand that bycatch reduction does not prevent them from making a living. By modifying gear and techniques to protect endangered sea turtles and other non-target species, fishermen can improve their efficiency and help to safeguard marine ecosystems. For example, Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), designed to release turtles trapped beneath the surface in shrimp trawls, also reduce the capture and waste of finfish, sorting time on deck and fuel consumption. In addition, TEDs exclude logs and other debris, helping to extend net use. In longline fleets, large circle hooks and fish bait in place of squid reduces sea turtle capture while improving swordfish catch.

Our international work and outreach programs position CCC well to contribute to reducing sea turtle capture in fisheries. This work will include advocacy for policies and regulations that reduce sea turtle capture in U.S. waters and support for hands-on gear research overseas to reduce turtle capture, injury and mortality. As U.S. fishermen develop methodology and gear to reduce sea turtle interactions, we will promote the export of these fixes as appropriate. This program also will integrate our dynamic ongoing international work with new efforts. Currently, for example, CCC holds a seat on the Consultative Committee of the Inter American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles (IAC). As we anticipate that the Convention will begin to address the unintentional capture of sea turtles in the not-too-distant future, the expertise of new CCC staff in dealing with fisheries issues will support IAC initiatives in this arena.

Promoting bycatch reduction within various Regional Fishery Management Organizations will be a cornerstone of our new work as these agreements have enormous potential to reduce sea turtle capture. For example, at the 26th Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation held in April, CCC staff helped write and pass a resolution calling for the Northwest Atlantic Fishing Organization (NAFO) to adopt guidelines to reduce interractions with sea turtles. When the NAFO parties met this September in Nova Scotia, CCC’s Marydele Donnelly attended the meeting to lobby for the adoption of the resolution. With official support from the U.S. and Japan delegates, the measure was adopted by NAFO. Steps now will be taken to assess the level of interraction and to adopt policies that address the problem. Just as importantly, NAFO’s commitment to address sea turtle concerns should help get other fisheries organizations to adopt sea turtle protection measures.