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Government and Industry Team Together to Help Save Sea Turtles

Statement by Scott Burns, Director of WWF's Marine Conservation Program to the National Press Club, January 5, 2004 regarding the development of turtle-friendly devices and new fishing methods for commercial longline vessels.

I am here today on behalf of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to do two things. First, I would like to congratulate NOAA and the Blue Water Fisherman's Association for collaborating in this important research initiative, and highlight the significance of this research to future sea turtle conservation efforts. Secondly, I am here to announce that my organization is calling on governments and fishing groups around the world to build on this important initiative - and to expeditiously undertake similar research and implement new conservation measures to protect sea turtles in other longline fisheries.

Regarding my first point: As you have already heard from our earlier speakers, this research is globally significant because sea turtle populations are in major trouble today. In particular, my organization is concerned with the precipitous decline of leatherback turtle populations in the Pacific. For nearly two decades WWF has been working to protect important sea turtle nesting sites in the Pacific. We worked with the Philippine and Malaysian governments to create the first international protected area for sea turtles in the Turtle Islands in 1996. Closer to our shores, we have actively supported new conservation measures by the parties to the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles, the international treaty that aims at recovering turtle populations around the western hemisphere, including the eastern pacific. But everywhere we look we see important turtle populations disappearing. It is estimated that in 1980 there were over 90,000 leatherback turtles in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Today researches estimate that less than 3,000 adult leatherback turtles remain in this region - a decline of roughly 95% over two decades.

Clearly we need to act now to reverse this decline, and to ensure healthy sea turtle populations for future generations. The NOAA research provides a very important piece of the puzzle that must be put together if we are to succeed in this effort. It shows that it is possible to dramatically reduce longline bycatch of sea turtles without adversely affecting catch of targeted fish species. And so once again WWF applauds all the parties who worked together to produce this important and timely research.

Because so many sea turtle populations - especially leatherbacks - are critically threatened WWF is calling on other governments and fishing groups to quickly form new partnerships to conduct similar research initiatives, and to expeditiously adopt new conservation measures based on research results. In the Pacific an important opportunity to move forward will take place when the fishing nations of the eastern Pacific meet in Kobe Japan in two weeks to discuss the conservation of sea turtles.

WWF calls on the participants in that meeting to take concrete steps to reduce sea turtle bycatch that build on NOAA's successful effort and that recognize the critical status of turtle populations today. For our part, WWF pledges to work with nations and fishing groups to design and implement new initiatives to protect sea turtles. We have begun serious discussions with the Government of Ecuador concerning a partnership to reduce turtle bycatch in that nation's domestic longline fleet. And we look forward to collaborating in a similar manner with other Latin American governments. NOAA and its sister agencies have a central role to play in this international effort. They have already noted their commitment to share the results of this research initiative with other governments, and to actively assist other nations with efforts to conserve sea turtles. And so in closing I'd like to express our commitment to work with NOAA in this endeavor, and to use WWF's international reach to move forward in solving this critical conservation problem.