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WWF Applauds First Global Forum to End Sea Turtle Bycatch Fatalities

Calls for Swift Action from Governments and Industry on Both Sides of Pacific

(Bangkok, Thailand) -- As government, fishing industry and conservation leaders meet in Bangkok for the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Technical Consultation on Sea Turtle Conservation and Fisheries, from November 29 to December 2, 2004, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) called on participants today to combine eastern and western Pacific resources to reverse the dramatic decline of the loggerhead turtles and the near-extinction of giant leatherbacks.

"Not only must we significantly boost beach protection efforts but we must dramatically reduce fisheries bycatch. This accidental catch is probably the single greatest threat to marine turtles," said Kim Davis, deputy director of the WWF-US marine conservation program. Researchers estimate that as many as 200,000 loggerheads and 50,000 leatherbacks are caught annually by commercial long-line tuna, swordfish, and other fisheries. In the eastern Pacific alone, leatherbacks have declined more than 90 percent in the last 20 years, with populations of 90,000 nesting females in the 1980s dropping to some 2,000 today.

"The good news is that researchers have found that simple, inexpensive changes in fishing hook technology can reduce longline turtle mortality by as much as 90 percent, while not adversely affecting fishery catches," said Davis.

Recent studies in the North Atlantic, and ongoing trials in the eastern Pacific, indicate that sea turtle bycatch in longline fisheries can be reduced through improvements to longline fishing gears and techniques -- especially with the use of "circle hooks" instead of traditional J-shaped hooks -- and with fish bait, the use of de-hookers, and training in turtle release techniques.

Working closely with the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and local partners, WWF is helping fisheries in the Pacific to test, refine and adopt these fishing improvements where the threats to leatherbacks and loggerheads are most urgent. Collaborative fishing experiments have been underway for several months in Ecuador, which is believed to have the largest coastal longline fleet in the eastern Pacific.

"The results of are still preliminary, but they are very promising," said Dr. Martin Hall, Chief Scientist for the IATTC. "The fishermen of Ecuador have been very enthusiastic. We're optimistic that, with these changes, fishermen can save turtles and keep fishing." Working closely with local partners and governments, WWF, the IATTC are now planning similar experiments with fisheries in Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Colombia, and Peru.

"This is an exciting and promising start to addressing the serious problem of longline bycatch," said Liz McLellan, WWF's Asia-Pacific sea turtle coordinator. "To save leatherbacks and loggerheads, however, we must work to ensure that longline fishing improvements are tested and adopted as quickly as possible throughout the whole Pacific. We must also address the serious problem of bycatch of all turtle species in other fisheries - including coastal gillnets, shrimp trawls and discarded fishing nets. There are solutions to some of these issues, but they are not adopted as widely as they need to be. In many cases, we need to find new technologies - to reduce turtle bycatch and safeguard the livelihoods of people who depend upon these fisheries. We are looking to the meeting in Bangkok to provide an opportunity to discuss specific initiatives and possible ways to finance them."

Both leatherbacks and loggerheads make trans-oceanic migrations, traveling thousands of miles along highways of currents in ways that scientists are just beginning to understand. In the Pacific, where the conservation problems for leatherbacks and loggerheads are most urgent, these turtles swim through the largest tuna fisheries in the world.

"These turtles swim through fisheries in international waters and in many different national jurisdictions," said Davis. "No single country can solve this problem. We are very pleased that the FAO is bringing nations and multi-national industries together to address this urgent conservation issue."

"We've already seen strong leadership on longline bycatch from several countries - including Japan and Ecuador as well as the United States. We call upon other countries will likewise support efforts to find ways to improve fishing so that the turtles can survive into the future," concluded Davis.

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Editor's Notes

  • The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is hosting the Technical Consultation on Sea Turtle Conservation and Fisheries, November 29-December 2, 2004, in Bangkok, Thailand. The agenda and details of the meeting are available at ftp://ftp.fao.org/fi/DOCUMENT/tc-stcf/2004/turtles.pdf. The Technical Consultation marks the first time that sea turtle bycatch in fisheries has been taken up at a global level in a fisheries forum.
  • Leatherback turtles grow larger, dive deeper, live longer and migrate farther than most other turtles. Leatherbacks often reach 6 feet in length and weigh more than 1,000 pounds. The largest leatherback ever recorded, an enormous male found stranded on a beach in Wales in 1988, was over 8 feet long and weighed 2,019 pounds. They can dive to depths of 4,000 feet and stay down for as long as an hour in search of their favorite food, jellyfish. Named for their massive heads, thick jaws and broad, short necks, loggerheads are likewise amazing. They feed mainly at the bottom of the ocean, crushing crustaceans and mollusks with their heavy jaws. Loggerheads often grow to 3 feet long and weigh up to 200-350 pounds. There is limited information on the lifespan of these species, but they are both thought to be long-lived, with leatherbacks living 30-80 or more years and loggerheads living 70 or more years and reaching sexual maturity at approximately 40 years of age.
  • Leatherbacks nest on both sides of the Pacific in two populations. Eastern Pacific leatherbacks that nest in Mexico and Costa Rica have been found to migrate down along South America as far as Chile, and western Pacific leatherbacks that nest in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Malaysia have been found to migrate from Southeast Asia across the Pacific to the waters off the United States and Mexico. Loggerheads nest on the western side of the Pacific in two populations. Northern loggerheads that nest in Japan have been found to migrate to Baja California. Southern loggerheads that nest in Australia and New Caledonia have been found to migrate into the central and eastern Pacific.
  • The fishing experiment in the North Atlantic that demonstrated the effectiveness of certain improvements to longline fishing for reducing turtle bycatch were conducted by NOAA and the Blue Water Fishermen's Association. For more information, see http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/mediacenter/turtles/.
  • For more information re: the estimate that as many as 200,000 loggerheads and 50,000 leatherbacks are caught annually by commercial long-line tuna, swordfish, and other fisheries, see: Rebecca L. Lewison, Sloan A.Freeman and Larry B. Crowder, Ecology Letters, (2004) 7: 221 - 231. Quantifying the effects of fisheries on threatened species: the impact of pelagic longlines on loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles.
  • WWF is now conducting or supporting turtle conservation work in 45 countries and is engaged in every major international turtle conservation policy discussion underway. In the eastern Pacific, WWF has a long history of constructive engagement in the bycatch reduction work of IATTC, and is now formally represented on the Commission. In the western Pacific, WWF has helped shape the new Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission policies, which will be important in reducing leatherback bycatch in longline fisheries. WWF is developing a global bycatch reduction strategy to use in engaging national governments, regional fisheries management organizations, international stakeholders and industry representatives in bycatch reduction measures.