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Sea Turtles and Fishing: The Dangers of Bycatch

Article by Petrina Darrah

Petrina Darrah

Posted: April 27, 2023

Sea turtles are fascinating creatures that have been around for over 100 million years, but their future is now at risk. Human activities, including fishing, have had a profound impact on sea turtle populations worldwide. In particular, bycatch is a major threat to these animals, with thousands of turtles dying every year as a result of being caught in fishing nets or other gear.

Sea Turtles and their Importance

Sea turtles are one of the oldest creatures on the planet, dating back to the time of the dinosaurs. They play a crucial role in marine ecosystems, helping to maintain the health of coral reefs and seagrass beds, which provide food and shelter for many other marine species. Moreover, sea turtles are an important economic resource, attracting millions of tourists each year to places like Costa Rica, where visitors can watch sea turtles nesting on the beach.

Unfortunately, sea turtles face many threats, including habitat destruction, pollution, and overfishing. By far, the most significant of these threats is bycatch, which is the unintended capture of non-target species by fishing gear.

Fishing and Bycatch

Fishing is a multi-billion dollar industry that provides food and livelihoods for millions of people around the world. However, it is also one of the biggest threats to sea turtles. The fishing industry uses a variety of methods to catch fish, including trawling, gillnetting, and longlining. These methods often result in the capture of other species, including sea turtles, that were not intended to be caught.

Gillnetting, in particular, is a major cause of sea turtle bycatch. Gillnets are nets that are hung vertically in the water column and are designed to catch fish by their gills. Unfortunately, sea turtles and other marine animals can also become entangled in these nets, leading to injury or death.

Trawling, another commonly used fishing method, involves dragging a large net behind a boat to catch fish. This method also captures a lot of bycatch, including sea turtles. Longlining, where fishing lines are baited with hooks and stretched across the ocean floor, is also a major cause of sea turtle bycatch.

The Impact of Bycatch on Sea Turtles

The impact of bycatch on sea turtles can be devastating. When turtles become entangled in fishing gear, they can suffer serious injuries, including cuts and bruises. If they are unable to escape, they may drown or die from exhaustion. Moreover, fishing gear can also damage their habitats, destroying seagrass beds and coral reefs that provide food and shelter for these animals.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), six of the seven species of sea turtles are threatened or endangered. The Kemp’s Ridley turtle, for example, is the most endangered sea turtle species in the world, with fewer than 1,000 nesting females remaining. Bycatch is one of the major reasons for their decline.

Conservation Efforts to Mitigate the Impact of Bycatch

GVI offers volunteer programs that focus on protecting sea turtles and their habitats. GVI marine conservation volunteers work with local communities to educate them about the importance of sea turtles and the impact of bycatch. They also help to monitor sea turtle populations and protect nesting sites from human disturbances.

Another conservation organisation that focuses on sea turtle conservation is the Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC). Founded in 1959, the STC is the world’s oldest sea turtle research and conservation organisation. The STC works to protect sea turtle habitats, monitor populations, and educate the public about the importance of sea turtles and their conservation.

Solutions to Reduce Bycatch

Reducing bycatch is critical to the survival of sea turtles and other marine animals. Fortunately, there are several solutions that can help reduce the impact of bycatch on these animals. Technological innovations, such as Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), can be installed on fishing nets to allow turtles to escape unharmed. These devices have been proven to be effective in reducing sea turtle bycatch in many fishing industries.

Changes in fishing practices and regulations can also help reduce bycatch. For example, some fishing companies have switched to more sustainable fishing methods, such as pole and line fishing, which have been shown to have lower levels of bycatch. Regulations can also be put in place to limit fishing in areas where sea turtles are known to inhabit or to require the use of TEDs in fishing gear.

Public awareness campaigns and education initiatives are also important in reducing bycatch. By educating the public about the impact of fishing on sea turtles, people can be more mindful of their consumption choices and support conservation efforts.

Success stories of bycatch reduction are also encouraging. In the Pacific Ocean, for example, a group of fishermen in Costa Rica have been using TEDs in their nets for several years, which has reduced the number of sea turtles caught in their nets by 90 percent. This is a remarkable achievement and demonstrates that bycatch reduction is possible with the right technology and education.

In conclusion, sea turtles are facing many threats, and bycatch is one of the most significant. Fishing practices, including gillnetting, trawling, and longlining, are major causes of sea turtle bycatch. This has resulted in serious injuries, death, and population decline. Conservation efforts, such as those carried out by GVI, are crucial to mitigating the impact of bycatch on sea turtles. Technological innovations, changes in fishing practices and regulations, public awareness campaigns, and education initiatives can all help reduce bycatch and protect sea turtles. It is up to all of us to take action and support these efforts to ensure the survival of these magnificent creatures for generations to come.

By Petrina Darrah

Petrina Darrah is a freelance writer from New Zealand with a passion for outdoor adventure and sustainable travel. She has been writing about travel for more than five years and her work has appeared in print and digital publications including National Geographic Travel, Conde Nast Travel, Business Insider, Atlas Obscura and more. You can see more of her work at petrinadarrah.com.
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