It's tough being a sea turtle. In addition to the usual list of wildlife challenges, predators, disease and so on, there are many threats posed by people: oil spills, plastic garbage, beach development, light pollution, egg poaching and climate change.
But the biggest human caused peril by far remains bycatch, the accidental catching and drowning of the species by fisheries and the number likely ranges in the millions, according to a new Duke University and Conservation International study.
Using direct onboard observations and interviews with fishermen, researchers estimated about 85,ooo turtles were caught between 1990 and 2008. But given the report covers less than 1 percent of all fishing fleets in the world, with little or no information from small-scale fisheries, the true total over the past two decades is likely in the millions rather than the tens of thousands, says Bryan Wallace, the study's lead author.
Bycatch rates from longline fishing and trawling are particularly high from Baja California to Chile and off the coast of the eastern United States and the southwest and northwest Atlantic. But researchers note that simple changes in gear from J-shaped hooks to circle hooks, which decrease the likelihood of a turtle swallowing the hook or having it more deeply embedded, can prevent a lot of mortality. "But while gear fixes might reduce bycatch and not necessarily in all cases, more responsible fisheries management is truly the key to meaningfully reducing sea turtle bycatch," says Wallace.
In Mexico, circle hooks are now mandatory, thanks in part to a campaign by Defenders of Wildlife, which distributed thousands of turtle-safe hooks to fishers along with special hook removal tools. Defenders also leads workshops along the Mexican coast that demonstrate how to avoid catching sea turtles and free them unharmed.
But when it comes right down to it, a big part of saving sea turtles is the responsibility of supermarket shoppers and restaurant diners like you. By keeping a sustainable seafood pocket guide in your wallet from www.montereybayaquarium.org or using resources like www.fishphone.org you can help sea turtles in your daily life.
This article is from Defenders of Wildlife magazine Summer 2010