Interviewed by Melissa Krenke Normann, Rainforest Alliance
“We established a relationship of trust, employed solutions to tackle turtle bycatch, and then from the bycatch issue, we developed the platform to guide these fisheries towards sustainable management at an ecosystem level.”
In the Eastern Pacific Ocean, populations of leatherback, green, and loggerhead marine turtles are plummeting due incidental bycatch from longline fisheries. To tackle this problem the World Wildlife Fund has partnered with the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission. Carlos Drews, Regional Marine Program and Species Coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean for the World Wildlife Fund, discusses the evolution of this relationship and how it is moving the fisheries industry in the Pacific coast of Central and South America towards sustainable management.
Question: What is the World Wildlife Fund doing to reduce sea turtle bycatch?
Drews: For the past four years, WWF has collaborated with the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, or IATTC, to transform the eastern Pacific longline fishing industry into a marine turtle-friendly industry that is concerned about bycatch and committed to reducing it. That is good news for turtles, but also groundbreaking because we are transforming the artisanal fishing sector by helping it to adopt management techniques that extend to other marine species, not just the species they aim to catch, and minimize damage to other aspects of the marine ecosystem. WWF believes in working towards solutions that help fishers keep their jobs while minimizing environmental impact to marine biodiversity.
This initiative involves a partnership between governments, NGOs, and the fishing sector — which includes fishermen, boat owners, and fish exporters — coming to the table together to discuss the reduction of marine turtle bycatch. Historically, the relationship between fisheries and conservation NGOs has been confrontational, but with marine turtles we have a common objective — they don’t want to catch turtles because the animals damage their nets and gear, and are a burden to fishing crews. Also because of international attention to the issue of bycatch and petitions calling for the closure of longline fishing, they are under pressure to reduce bycatch. In addition, some fishermen and institutional leaders in the region are already genuinely committed to fisheries sustainably. These are fertile grounds for a large-scale transformation.
Q: How has this international attention affected the fishing industry?
Drews: It has motivated the industry to find solutions. To provide a bit of context — longlines are up to 70 miles long and are kept afloat by buoys. From that long line, a number of other lines hang vertically at different depths of 15-40 meters, with 8,000-10,000 baited hooks. The longlines of artisanal vessels, however, are just a few kilometers long. They are set overnight and collected in the morning. The average catch rate for marine turtles in one longline can be one to three turtles caught per 1,000 hooks.
To reduce turtle bycatch, in 2003 the IATTC decided to experiment with replacing the traditionally-used “j-hooks” with larger “circle” hooks in eastern Pacific longline fisheries. The j-hooks catch anything that comes into contact with them, and turtles can swallow them or get hooked in their armpit or flipper, which causes a great deal of harm or death. Circle hooks have the tip bent inwards and are thus unlikely to hook the turtle upon contact. Also, circle hooks are wider and turtles can’t swallow them as easily — they typically catch turtles in or around their mouth, which makes it easier for fisheries crews to remove the hook and release the turtle. WWF co-sponsored this initiative and provided funds, regional staff in eight countries from Mexico to Peru, and workshops to train crews how to handle and release hooked marine turtles. Several dozen partners also supported this initiative.
Another innovation is a new deep-set longline, which was designed by Steve Beverly as part of WWF’s SmartGear competition. This design has been tested in New Zealand and Australia, and there are plans to experiment with the design in Pacific waters to see how they perform.
Q: Do any data show the benefits of circle hooks versus j-hooks?
Drews: A 70 – 90 percent reduction of turtle bycatch with circle hooks has been reported in the Atlantic fisheries. WWF is publishing a report in June, 2008 that quantifies the reduction in bycatch in eastern Pacific waters. Results show that the circle hooks reduce turtle bycatch, while still catching the same number of tuna that are caught with j-hooks. However, the circle hooks are catching less mahi mahi than the j-hook. This doesn’t seem to be the case everywhere — in Costa Rica the fishers are happy with the circle hook performance in catching mahi-mahi, but in Ecuador they are not. This may have to do with the size of the mahi mahi caught — we are analyzing data to see if circle hooks catch fewer, but larger mahi mahi. If that is the case, then the fisheries are better off using circle hooks. The system needs fine tuning, but we are confident that from a conservation perspective, we are making progress.
The circle hook has proven to be a win-win solution. It’s a relatively easy and cost-effective solution because when they use them, crews are able to recover and reuse their hooks. In contrast, when crews use j-hooks and a turtle is ensnared, crews typically cut off the hook and leave it inside the turtle, which causes a loss on both sides. At the same time, we are training these fishing crews to give first-aid to hooked turtles and think of themselves as custodians of the sea. The program empowers them to be part of the solution and it changes their attitude.
Q: How does the IATTC regulate fisheries in the Americas?
Drews: The IATTC is a regional fisheries management organization, or an “RFMO” in fisheries lingo. Because migratory marine resources, like tuna, are shared resources, the RFMOs serve as an umbrella body that regulates the fishery. Governments sign onto the IATTC as a member party and each year, member states meet to generate binding resolutions and set regional catch limits for some species. This is a crucial meeting, because this is where everyone comes to the table to discuss the shared management of marine resources.
Q: Why did WWF choose the leatherback turtle as the indicator species for its fisheries bycatch reduction program?
Drews: We chose the leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) because it is the most critically endangered marine turtle species in the world, particularly the Eastern Pacific population. In this region, the number of recorded nesting leatherback females has plummeted from 90,000 to some 2,000 in the past 20 years. The number one threat to marine turtles worldwide today is fisheries bycatch, as per the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group.
In the eastern Pacific, the leatherback is continuing to decline and there are no signs of recovery. However, we will not give up, and anything that we do to help leatherbacks, such as reducing bycatch, will benefit the eastern Pacific green turtles (Chelonia mydas), olive ridleys (Lepidochelys olivacea), and loggerheads (Caretta caretta). These species are the bulk of marine turtles caught as bycatch. This is not because they are caught more often, but because there are so few leatherbacks left in the ocean that their bycatch rates are much lower.
The Atlantic leatherback population is faring better. Leatherbacks worldwide are considered endangered, but if we look by region, data from the Leatherback Turtle Expert Working Group show that the prospects of recovery are good in the Atlantic. The future of these populations is also dependent on conservation measures. The majority of efforts are currently directed to protecting their nesting sites, stopping egg poaching, and reducing bycatch mortality.
Q: To what do you attribute the difference between Pacific and Atlantic leatherback populations?
Drews: In the eastern Pacific, leatherbacks take four a half years to return to their nesting sites. They will lay a clutch of approximately 40 to 80 eggs five or six times per season, between October and April. Then they migrate south to grow and replenish their energy reserves in areas where jellyfish are abundant, and they stay there for four and a half years before returning to nest in Costa Rica or Mexico. In the Atlantic Ocean, they wait only two-and-a-half years before returning to nest. The whole cycle is shorter, and therefore every female produces many more offspring in her lifetime than a female in the Pacific. Consequently, Atlantic leatherbacks seem to be better able to withstand the effects of bycatch than their Pacific counterparts, just by the sheer number of eggs they produce over a lifetime. We are talking about oceanic productivity differences that may affect leatherbacks differently in each basin. It could also be partially attributed to the El Niño “disturbance” in the Pacific which is absent in the Atlantic. But the fact is that the Pacific population is in overall worse shape than in the Atlantic.
Q: How are you monitoring success of your marine turtle conservation work?
Drews: The most obvious way is by counting nesting females each season. WWF has launched a community-based conservation program at Playa Junquillal in Costa Rica, one of the most important leatherback nesting sites in the country. Historically, there was rampant poaching on this beach, destroying 100% of all leatherback nests. We began a hatching demonstration program, trained young adults to guard the nests, and increased community awareness and poaching has almost completely stopped. At Junquillal and neighboring beaches along the coast, WWF and other groups are recording and tagging every nesting female. Unfortunately, we have to wait 25 years or so to reliably document an increase in the number of nests. So in the meantime, we are using a proxy to show success — the number of fishing vessels that convert to using circle hooks and employing best management practices for turtles. Our goal is to convert 2,000 vessels over the next three years. With that number, we are hoping to reach a tipping point or cascading effect that will trickle down to all of the longline boats registered under the IATTC and to the vast, unregistered artisanal fleet.
Q: What have been some of the greatest successes in working with the fisheries industry?
Drews: I think the greatest asset is the trust that has been gained among conservation NGOs, the fishing sector, and the various government agencies. We began our relationship with marine turtle bycatch as the common ground to create a larger ecosystem-based perspective in regards to fisheries management. Most artisanal fisheries have historically escaped from systematic data collection and therefore have had no adequate management tools. Through our partnership, we’ve begun training fishermen to become volunteer observers on boats that record all marine species that are caught, with what kind of hook and what bait, and at what location, so that we can analyze how the circle hooks are performing. In the long-term, however, this information permits asking the more complicated questions about fishing capacity, access rights, and time and area management — the basis for sustainable fishing. Through this monitoring program, we’ve been able to create a regional database of fishing activities and are creating tools to inform management issues. We established a relationship of trust, employed solutions to tackle turtle bycatch, and then from the bycatch issue, we developed the platform to guide these fisheries towards sustainable management at an ecosystem level. I find this to be quite ground-breaking and promising.