Study finds killing of over 1,800 marine turtles last year

March 25, 2015

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Dr Nicolas J. Pilcher gives a presentation on Tuesday.—White Star
Dr Nicolas J. Pilcher gives a presentation on Tuesday.—White Star

KARACHI: An interview-based survey whose findings were shared during the proceedings of a regional symposium on Tuesday showed a massive bycatch problem in Pakistan with the shrimp fishery and turtles getting incidentally caught and killed in huge numbers annually.

Titled Sea Turtle Conservation in Asia, the two-day event was organised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as part of its USAID-funded Saving the Endangered Sea Turtle project.

Giving a presentation on TED (turtle excluder device) trial monitoring and estimation of sea turtles mortality along the coast of Pakistan, Dr Nicolas J. Pilcher, the co-chair of the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group and executive director of the Marine Research Foundation, said that Pakistan was a registered TED user nation with the US Department of State, but the implementation of TED regulations had been scarce for many years.

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Assisted by local experts, Dr Pilcher carried out a baseline study last year to asses current state of the fishery, the rate of turtle bycatch and TEDs uptake. About 300 fishermen targeting shrimp and fish were interviewed.

“The results depicted a clear reliance on shrimp fishing by a majority of respondents who used trawl nets primarily but occasionally used other gears. The key concern with nets was the use of extremely small mesh sizes [less than a half centimetre],” he said.

According to the study findings, 87 per cent of fishers reported catching turtles accidentally in their nets last year. Most of them reported to have caught one turtle, but their number could exceed 10 turtles per boat per year. Green and olive Ridley turtles made up the bulk of the bycatch, but the catch of loggerheads and occasional bycatch of leatherback were also reported.

“When these values are extrapolated fishery-wide, they could account for 1,817 to 2,381 turtle deaths in the last year alone,” he said.

Although fishers reported that the trend was on the decline, this was likely linked to the overall number of turtles rather than any change in practices, he added.

During the survey, most fishers acknowledged they knew about the TEDs and that they had seen them.

“Indeed a substantial proportion of them had actually used a TED at some point in the past, but only 7pc indicated they used them now. A number of fishers indicated having trouble using TEDs (losing catch) and this created resentment that resulted in TED removal,” Dr Pilcher explained.

He cited the example of Malaysia where modified TEDs had proven to be successful for fishermen who were practically showed that the use of such a TED led to better catch quality, reduced cost of fuel and brought efficiency in the overall fishing activity.

The expert highlighted the need for a diverse programme of trials and demonstrations, along with the development of a technical TED team, to reintroduce TEDs amongst fishers and save sea turtles in Pakistan.

The other side of the coin

A presentation by Mohammad Moazzam Khan, technical adviser on marine resources to the World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan, however, showed a different picture of turtle mortality.

Referring to a 2012 study, he said that rarely turtles were caught in trawl nets while fishing gears used in the creek were not harmful for turtles as the species was not found in the creek system.

“Monitoring of fishing operations in the offshore areas of Pakistan revealed that maximum number of turtles got entangled in the pelagic gillnet operations, resulting in mortality in some cases. It is heartening that majority of these turtles survive enmeshment,” he said, adding that about 25,000 to 30,000 turtles were released in the pelagic gillnet fisheries annually.

Turtle in Pakistan, he said, was represented by all the five known species from the Indian Ocean. Of them, only one species i.e. green turtle nested along the coast of Pakistan. Olive Ridley turtle used to nest here along the coast but for the past 12 years no authentic record of its nesting had been observed, he added.

“Recently, we have found confirmed records of occurrence of loggerhead turtle, hawksbill turtle and leatherback turtles from Pakistan coast. They face a number of threats, the most serious one being their entanglement in fishing nets,” he said.

Indian experiment

Highlighting the importance of turtles in the marine ecosystems, IUCN’s Asia Region Director Aban Marker Kabraji said that conservation and development could go simultaneously together. In this regard, he cited the example of Dhamra Port in India, where the IUCN helped TATA Group to join hands with turtle conservationists in coming up with a strategy to protect sea turtles there, as the port was being built.

Indian Ocean and South East Asia Marine Turtle Memorandum of Understanding Coordinator Clara Nobbe, Climate Change Secretary Arif Ahmed Khan and Country Representative of IUCN Pakistan Mahmood Akhtar Cheema also spoke.

Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2015

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