Thousands of sea turtles killed by small-scale fishing in South America

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 5 June 2018

Small-scale fishing vessels are killing thousands of sea turtles in operations off South America’s Pacific coast, according to new research.

Green Turtle swimming
© Jeremy Bishop

Often fishers don’t want to catch turtles and other big marine wildlife, it can be costly in terms of damaged gear, lost fishing time and potential violation of the law.

Dr Peter Richardson,
MCS Head of Ocean Recovery

The tens of thousands of turtles are being caught annually as a result of by-catch, according to new research based on surveys of 43 harbours in Ecuador, Peru and Chile.

The research reveals that gillnet fisheries catch more than 46,000 sea turtles per year, with more than 16,000 killed in the process. Experts say the true numbers are likely to be higher, as not all ports in each country were surveyed.

The study, supported by the UK Government’s Darwin Initiative, was designed to fill data gaps and identify priority areas for future conservation work.

Accidental catching of non-target species - known as bycatch - is a major threat to many marine creatures including sea turtles, and the researchers say their findings highlight Ecuador and Peru as key places to tackle the problem.

Professor Brendan Godley, from the University of Exeter, said: “People worry about industrial fisheries but a real concern that people are waking up to is small-scale fisheries.

“These are small vessels but they exist in such huge numbers that they can have a massive impact on ecosystems.”

Turtles living in the study area include leatherbacks, which are critically endangered in the east Pacific, and the worldwide critically endangered hawksbills.

Dr Peter Richardson, MCS Head of Ocean Recovery, says this type of study is vital: “This excellent study shows the potentially huge impact of small-scale fisheries on marine mega-fauna, an impact that will be reflected in coastal waters across the globe. Often fishers don’t want to catch turtles and other big marine wildlife, it can be costly in terms of damaged gear, lost fishing time and potential violation of the law. That’s why it is important conservationists work closely with fishers to reduce bycatch, because we usually want the same outcome.”

MCS has successfully worked with fishing communities in the Turks and Caicos Islands to address fishery management issues.

Dr Joanna Alfaro, director of Peru-based conservation charity ProDelphinus, said: “This work highlights the importance and the benefits of our approach of engaging with fishers.

“We are actively working with fishers in this region to develop and implement solutions to bycatch - not just to improve the situation for turtles but for the health of fisheries and fish stocks.

“Our goal is to develop fisheries that are sustainable for small-scale fishing communities and the species with which they interact.”

Dr Jeffrey Mangel, also from the University of Exeter, added: “Gathering this survey data was a massive effort across three countries, and the results give us fascinating and important insights.

“We are careful not to overstate threats to wildlife, but in this case it’s clear that tens of thousands of turtles are being caught each year.”

The south-eastern Pacific sustains extensive fisheries that are important sources of food and employment for millions of people.

The paper: “Untangling the impacts of nets in the southeastern Pacific: Rapid assessment of marine turtle bycatch to set conservation priorities in small-scale fisheries”, is published in the journal Fisheries Research.

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