4,600 Sea Turtles Killed in US Fisheries Every Year -- But That's Good News

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sea turtles swimming underwater
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The loss of sea turtles as bycatch among fisheries is heartbreaking. Currently, we kill an estimated 4,600 turtles every year due to fishing -- they are wrapped in the nets or hooked on bait lines set for fish. However, a new report shows that this represents a 90% reduction of sea turtles as bycatch since 1990. So, is 4,600 deaths good news? Are we making progress, or are we still on a path to lose sea turtles forever?

Fisheries Are Making Progress

Conservation International reports, "Researchers at Duke University's Project GloBAL (Global By-catch Assessment of Long-lived Species) and Conservation International (CI) compiled available information reported by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the agency responsible for managing US fisheries, to estimate how many sea turtles were taken as bycatch by U.S. fishermen between 1990 and 2007. Bycatch is the accidental capture and injury of marine animals in fishing gear that are not the target catch species. The researchers estimated that 4,600 sea turtles currently perish each year in U.S. coastal waters, but nevertheless represents a 90-percent reduction in previous death rates."

According to the researchers, the good news is really that the efforts of fisheries over the past two decades to follow new bycatch reduction measures have made a significant dent. These included using circle hooks on longlines which are less likely to snag a turtle that goes after the baited hook, dehooking equipment that could save a turtle that was hooked rather than harm it even more, the use of "turtle excluder devices" on shrimp trawl nets that allow turtles to escape after being caught, and rules about keeping out of particular areas during times when turtles are most likely to be present.

But the number of sea turtles killed is bad news, of course. Even the death of one sea turtle would be bad news. Still, while the loss of 4,600 sea turtles every year as bycatch is still a serious issue, it is 90% less than the estimated 71,000 killed 20 years ago. The total capture rate is down 60% as well, to just under 138,000 from 300,000. Though that is across 20 fisheries in the US, Conservation International notes, "Shrimp trawls in the Gulf of Mexico and Southeastern U.S. alone accounted for up to 98% of all takes [and 80% of all turtle deaths due to bycatch] during the past two decades."

Much More Still Needs to Be Done

After the study was completed, the researchers realized how effective the measures have been to help save sea turtles -- but also how much more improvement is needed. What is still unclear is whether or not sea turtle populations are being helped enough that they may recover after the substantial losses they're suffering.

Dr. Bryan Wallace, a co-author on the study and Director of Science for the Marine Flagship Species Program at Conservation International and Adjunct Faculty member at Duke University. "Bycatch limits must be set unilaterally across all U.S. fisheries with overall impacts to populations in mind, much as it's done for marine mammals. This would ensure that these bycatch reductions are successful in recovering sea turtle populations...The bottom line is, we have the tools and the knowledge to save these iconic but threatened animals. We just have to commit to consistently implementing these tools in fisheries in U.S. waters and around the world to promote sustainable fisheries with reduced bycatch."

Oceana's Elizabeth Griffin Wilson, senor manager for marine wildlife, is less excited about the report's findings: "It is disgraceful that U.S. fisheries are allowed to kill 4,600 endangered and threatened sea turtles each year - and that is the best case scenario. This estimate also assumes that sea turtle protection measures are being followed in all U.S. fisheries. The actual number of sea turtles killed in U.S. fisheries is likely significantly higher."

So while the good news from the report is that progress has been made, the bad news is we're still loosing thousands of sea turtles every year -- and all species found in US waters are threatened or endangered. Indeed, there is a long way to go before we can say sea turtles are relatively safe from our fishing lines and nets.