Global Efforts Needed To Protect Leatherback Sea Turtles From Industrialized Fishing Zones
February 12, 2014

Global Efforts Needed To Protect Leatherback Sea Turtles From Industrialized Fishing Zones

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

A new study from a team of international researchers has found that global efforts are urgently needed to protect leatherback sea turtles as the marine reptiles often swim through heavily-fished areas – making them highly susceptible to getting entangled in fishing nets.

In the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the scientists tracked nearly 110 leatherback turtles across the Atlantic and south-west Indian Oceans using satellite transmitters. The tracking data was analyzed along with data on the nine areas in the turtles' habitat with the highest risk of bycatch.

The study team discovered that Atlantic leatherbacks use both deep international waters and coastal regions, either seasonally or annually, in a sophisticated pattern of habitat use.

"This study clearly stresses the transboundary nature of leatherback turtle seasonal movement and the multi-national effort necessary to design measures to protect this iconic species from fisheries activity,” said study author Matthew Witt, of the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the University of Exeter in the UK. “Significant efforts are urgently needed to bridge the gap between scientists and the fishing industry to ensure these and future findings are rapidly progressed into policy."

The study team found that of the nine areas of high vulnerability for leatherbacks, four are in the North Atlantic and five in the South-Equatorial Atlantic. In the study, the authors wrote that these areas of high vulnerability varied significantly.

“The areas located in the Guinea and Angola basins were extremely broad in extent, while the area located around the Canaries or the area off the coast of southwest Africa was much narrower,” the study team wrote. “In broader areas, gear modifications and alternative fishing practices may be more effective in reducing bycatch than marine protected areas or temporary spatial closures.”

The researchers also said that high-susceptibility areas located in waters controlled by a single nation may be better candidates for management, as protection strategies would need to involve only a single government. They added that integrated approaches to ecosystem administration and bycatch reduction would need to be created to balance long-term ecological and economic objectives.

Data in the study was analyzed with the assistance of web-based tools developed by study author Brendan Godley, from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter.

"The integration of these vast datasets clearly highlights areas where fisheries need to be subject to greater scrutiny,” he said. “We must avoid the tragedy that could ensue where fisheries from wealthy nations negatively impact the marine biodiversity of developing nations, many of which are valiantly trying to protect their coastal and offshore environments."

“Some nations have already implemented management actions in their (jurisdiction) to reduce turtle bycatch,” the researchers noted. “Yet few or no regulations are in place in many parts of the Atlantic Ocean, and regulations are particularly lacking in many parts of the southern Atlantic where, according to our study, the majority of high-susceptibility areas might occur.”

The study team also called for more studies surrounding bycatch and the protection of marine species.

“Globally, wider availability of bycatch rates, in combination with increased transparency and stricter rules for the reporting of bycatch and fishing effort by all fisheries, would greatly help in the assessment of bycatch risks and the design of effective mitigation for species of conservation concern,” they wrote in their conclusion.