Sea Turtle Conservation
American fishermen have a long history of working with scientists to reduce interactions with non-target species. These accidental captures are sometimes referred to as “bycatch”. BWFA members have always sought to reduce bycatch, not only for economic reasons but also to enhance conservation. To that end, we designed and participated in cutting-edge research focused on minimizing encounters with sea turtles and other marine life. These methods proved to be enormously effective.
NOAA Fisheries Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is responsible for managing and conserving U.S. marine resources. In their FishWatch Fact Sheet about swordfish, they state,
In cooperation with Blue Water Fishermen's Association and the Fisheries Research Institute, NOAA Fisheries was able...to find the winning combinations used to achieve up to a 90% reduction in fishing gear-sea turtle interactions for leatherbacks and loggerheads.
In the 1980s, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS/NOAA Fisheries) implemented regulations on shrimp trawl fisheries to protect sea turtles. As a result, sea turtle populations in the North West Atlantic have increased, with more oceanic sightings than in previous decades. These marine reptiles are protected in the United States by the Endangered Species Act. Every activity that interacts with these species is subject to special rules and incidental take limits.
In 2000, NMFS estimated that interactions with loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles by the Atlantic pelagic longline fishery exceeded allowable levels. Their initial management response was to close the North East Distant fishing area, commonly known as the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, Canada. Since this area generally yields the largest swordfish and is low in the catch rate of juveniles, it has been a primary fishing area for U.S. fishermen, as well as fishermen of many other nations, for more than fifty years. Therefore, it was critical that we determine ways to continue to fish in this area while simultaneously reducing the number of interactions with sea turtles.
BWFA worked with NOAA Fisheries to develop an experimental fishery to test hook types, baits, and other gear innovations. This research was designed to determine the optimum gear configuration to reduce or eliminate interactions with sea turtles while ensuring a sustainable and viable swordfish fishery. This research was conducted from 2001 to 2003. As a result of this experiment, it was determined that certain types and sizes of circle-style hooks achieved better results than traditional J-style hooks. Interaction rates, the incidence of injury, as well as the severity of injury were all dramatically reduced. In fact, the research documented an 88% reduction in loggerhead interaction and an 86% reduction in leatherback interaction compared to previous techniques. Equipment to remove gear from the animals was developed, tested, and perfected, leading to even greater rates of survivability for released individuals. During the research, fishermen asked gear developers to find a way to bring large turtles on board the vessel to remove fishing hooks or other gear in a way that would not harm the turtle. This led to the creation of a turtle elevator, which is demonstrated in the video, titled "Leatherbacks Aboard", which can be viewed by clicking here.
As the results of this research became clear, NOAA Fisheries was eager to herald this accomplishment. In January of 2004, NMFS held a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. BWFA leadership and members stood side-by-side both with NMFS scientists and leadership, and also with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a leading environmental group who recognized the magnitude of this accomplishment. Scott Burns, who is the Marine Conservation Director of WWF, stated, “I’d like to congratulate NOAA and the Blue Water Fishermen’s Association for collaborating in this important research initiative and to highlight the significance of this research [for] the future of sea turtle conservation efforts.” Dr. William Hogarth, director of NOAA Fisheries said, “The results of this study have global implications for all nations with longline fishing fleets.” Then Executive Director Nelson Beideman stated, “We are pleased to announce to the fishing world that we have successfully documented practical ways for pelagic longline fishermen to overwhelmingly reduce sea turtle interactions and also to substantially reduce harm from any remaining sea turtle interactions. Because our domestic fisheries are a mere fraction of global sea turtle interactions, it was critical that our research concentrate on practical and transferable solutions that can hopefully be accepted by foreign fleets.”
Because of the importance of this result, NOAA Fisheries implemented rules requiring the use of circle-style hooks and the possession, training, and use of tools and techniques to humanely remove any fishing gear from sea turtles by all U.S. North Atlantic pelagic longline fishermen. In addition, NOAA Fisheries conducted a series of workshops designed to educate foreign fishermen, scientists, and fishery managers about the benefits of these innovations and promoted their use globally.
BWFA is proud to have been a key part of this crucial experiment to reduce sea turtle interactions and reduce harm to these species. As other nations adopt these techniques, it will make a dramatic difference in longline fishing worldwide.