Accidents on the Ocean Highway: Improved Safety Program Needed for Marine Turtles

Sea turtles are often caught as bycatch, accident victims on the ocean highways. Fishers in Pakistan are leading the way in safe release of sea turtles and other species until new fishing technologies are developed to prevent bycatch.

In a previous post, Lotus Vermeer made an analogy of “Roadkill on the Ocean Highway” with turtle mortality in gillnets. She also suggested testing modifications in the fishing gear that may help reduce sea turtle bycatch in the Pacific. Once developed these modifications will save thousands of bycatch species including marine turtles which are killed every year in fishing gear around the world.

Pending development of such devices and techniques, the mortality of marine turtles and other bycatch species will continue for a very long period. Such modifications, even if developed within next few years, will not likely be adopted by fishermen very quickly especially in some of the small scale and artisanal fisheries in Asia and the Pacific. There will be a resistance in making changes in the traditional fishing practices which may further delay the process. This means that “roadkill” of marine turtles on the ocean highway will continue to be a painful reality even in the years to come.

Waiting until the time such bycatch reduction modifications are developed may take a very long time; therefore, there is a need to look for other options. Finding ways to avoid roadkill on the ocean highway is a good strategy, but saving the life of the accident victims on these highways is needed until such means of reducing bycatch are developed and adopted. WWF-Pakistan decided to act immediately by saving the lives of those that face accidents on ocean highways.

The strategy adopted by WWF-Pakistan is primarily aimed to minimize the “roadkill” of bycatch species, especially marine turtles, by releasing them safely from the gillnets. This all started about 4 years ago, while having a debriefing with one observer on board a tuna gillnet boat. He informed me that 4 turtles were entangled in his gillnets during his last fishing trip. He recorded the location, size and other information about bycatch species. I was happy that such information is being generated which will be used in assessing the frequency of bycatch of important species. Out of curiosity, I asked what was the fate of those turtles and he immediately said that after hauling in the net, which usually takes about 4 to 6 hours, we throw back these turtles in the sea. That seems to be a good gesture.

Sea turtle release. Photo courtesy of Moazzam Khan / WWF-Pakistan
Sea turtle release. Photo courtesy of Moazzam Khan / WWF-Pakistan

While reviewing the video clip the observer recorded during the last fishing trip, I was horrified to see how turtles are treated on board the vessels. The turtles were disentangled from the net without taking any care that they were not hurt. The turtle is then left unattended in the sun which may desiccate them. I could see that the turtle was gasping and trying to find a way back to sea. After the whole net was heaved, two fishermen lifted the poor turtle which is almost half dead. Dangling with its legs, the turtle was thrown back in the sea. I can see it landed on its back and start sinking. The clip stopped here so I was not sure whether it survived or drowned. The clips of other three turtles showed almost same treatment.

I decided to make this observer aware of the importance of marine turtles and asked him not to mistreat enmeshed turtles. It was explained pictorially how to carefully disentangle the turtle and immediate release them in the sea gently with head down position so that release process may not hurt them. This turned out to be a major success. On the next trip while looking at the clips, to my utter surprise, I could see all turtles were handled gently, disentangled carefully and immediately released in the sea in the proper manner. The observer was also happily informed that he has asked all his fellow skippers to follow this practice.

From then onward, the information about safe release of turtles kept on pouring in. Through verbal descriptions and video clips taken by digital cameras or mobile phones, in which you can see fishermen releasing turtles in the best possible way. They are especially careful that these turtles may not get injured in the process of disentanglement or during release. I am really proud of these fishermen who learned so quickly and are saving a lot of turtles (my last estimate was in excess of 30,000 annually) which is a remarkable achievement. Although we could not stop “roadkill,” through this voluntary act of fishermen we are saving the lives of those turtles that face accidents on “ocean highways”.

The story does not end here: we started an awareness program for fishermen directly and through our observers so that their gesture is not confined to saving turtles, but other bycatch animals may also be released safely. This turned out to be another successful venture. We started receiving information and video clips of non-target animals being released by fishermen including baleen whales, dolphins, whale sharks, sunfish, sea snakes, marine birds, manta and mobulid rays. Previously fishermen used to dump most of these animals back in the sea without caring about their welfare. Seabirds they used to eat and whale sharks and mobulids used to be kept for sale in local markets.

Although the “accidents” on the ”ocean highways” cannot be stopped and some of these have resulted in “roadkill,” now having a system of “road safety” some of the victims of entanglements that are still alive are safely released. The most surprising safe releases so far have been an Arabian Humpback whale and a Longman’s beaked whale, which turned out to be a new record from the Northern Arabian Sea.

Traffic on “ocean highways” may continue to increase which may result in some “roadkill,” but an adequate system of “road safety” is necessarily required in all fisheries following the example of fishermen in Pakistan.

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  1. Donna Reichart says:

    Bravo!! Thank you so much for saving the whale shark and any species caught in your nets that aren’t edible. It takes patience, courage and perseverance. Fishermen are the number one guardians of the sea. They are out to sea the most, and can see how healthy the ocean and it’s creatures are. By keeping all species healthy, your catch will remain healthy and plentiful.

  2. Anne Hutchinson says:

    Wow. Thank you, men.