Millions of Endangered Sea Turtles Killed by Fisheries

Sea turtles are getting killed in the millions from large-scale fisheries. See how this happens, potential solutions to the problem, and what you can do below.


A new report published in the journal Conservation Letters shows the results of the first global assessment of turtle “bycatch” by longline, gillnet and trawl fisheries. Basically, bycatch is when these fisheries accidentally catch animals they don’t intend to catch. Unfortunately, the news is not good for millions of sea turtles, with six out of seven marine turtle species listed as “Vulnerable”, “Endangered”, or “Critically Endangered” on the IUCN Red List largely as a result of this.

“Turtles, which are air-breathing reptiles, often perish by drowning or by swallowing sharp hooks that can become lodged in the soft tissue of the turtles’ throats and stomachs,” Jennifer Viegas of Discover News reports.

“For sea turtles, fisheries bycatch is the most serious, acute threat to the persistence of their populations,” lead author of the new study and science advisor for Conservation International, Bryan Wallace, says. He also adds that shrimp trawling is one of the most harmful practices for sea turtles.

“Anywhere from 5 to 20 pounds of bycatch — turtles, fish, mammals, invertebrates, coral — is removed from the ocean to catch enough for just a pound of shrimp,” Wallace says. “In the process, the destruction to ocean habitats left in the wake of a trawl net is very much like clear-cutting and bulldozing a tropical forest. That habitat is changed dramatically, and its recovery, if possible, will take a very long time.”

Using data collected from 1990 to 2008, Wallace and his research team concluded that at least 8.5 million sea turtles were killed from bycatch in that period of time.

Baja, Calif., Mexico (longlines), Uruguay (trawls) and the North Adriatic region of the Mediterranean (gillnets) are where the highest bycatch rates occurred. In the end, the Mediterranean, the Eastern Pacific, the Southwest Atlantic and the Northwest Atlantic regions were identified as the most important regions in the world for urgent conservation efforts.

As an example of how unsustainable fishing in these regions is, in the Mediterranean “21 countries fish an area that is less than 2 percent the total surface area of the Pacific Ocean and less than 30 percent of the total land area of the United States,” Wallace said. “The European Environmental Agency estimated that 65 percent of all fish stocks in the Mediterranean are overfished.”

What are the solutions?

Wallace and his team recommend:

  • regional governance, such as establishing marine protected areas;
  • sustainable fisheries reform, including seasonal and time-area closures to fisheries;
  • selective gear modification, such as the use of circle hooks and Turtle Excluder Devices;
  • responsible seafood consumption by consumers.

For “responsible seafood consumption”, Wallace and his team recommend that people only eat poll or troll caught fish, like tuna, mahi-mahi and wahoo that have not been longline caught.

Other more sea turtle-friendly options include “lobster from northeastern or California waters; Australian rock lobster; king, stone and Dungeness crabs; calamari; Pacific Northwest salmon; farm-raised tilapia; and most farm-raised shellfish,” Viegas reports. “Additional recommendations are available through services like ‘FishPhone,’ where users text in the name of a fish and get information on it in seconds.”

If you eat seafood, take this information into account next time you order or shop, if you want to help protect critically endangered sea turtles of the world.

Image Credit1: TarikB via flickr under a CC license
Image Credit 2: jurvetson via flickr under a CC license

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