Notes from the Field: How NOT to catch a turtle

"It had been one of the best experiences of my conservation-oriented career...If there ever was a definition for 'Sharing without Borders' in the conservation world, this was it." - Dr. Nicolas Pilcher, Executive Director, Marine Research Foundation

 Webmaster’s note:

Sea turtles face a variety of threats at various stages of their lives as they journey through life, such as incidental catches in fishing nets, egg harvests, habitat loss and poaching. One of the indirect threats to turtle populations is through mechanized fisheries, which kill turtles as they are incidentally caught as bycatch. Recent estimates in Sabah alone project mortalities of upwards of 1000 to 3000 animals per year (Pilcher et al. 2007).

To help address this threat, Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape partner Marine Research Foundation (MRF) has been working to promote the use of Turtle Excluder Devices (TED) in Malaysian fisheries, in cooperation with the Sabah Department of Fisheries.

In April 2009, a TED study tour brought a group of representatives from Malaysia’s trawl fishing community and fisheries department to Pascagoula, Louisiana, USA. The visit allowed the Malaysian participants to learn more about TEDs, participate directly in trawling trials using TEDs, and interact with experienced fishers who use TEDs as a matter of course. The following are excerpts from MRF Executive Director Nicolas Pilcher’s account of the very rewarding and enlightening trip.

Day 1:

Day one of the workshop started early, with a six A.M. pickup from the hotel to get down to the lab and a day's boating, trialing TEDs with different openings on one boat, so the guys could compare performance there and then.

What a day! We had TEDs, shrimp, more shrimp, large fish, lots of laughs, loads of crazy moments, more shrimp, and more learning in a day than I could have ever provided in a year. The guys were all hands-on, helping bring nets in and sort the catch - much to the admiration of the local boat crew - they thought the team was great! We cooked up the shrimp we caught in a typical southern spicy soup boil and ate it there and then on the boat. We had a comment early in the day about the grids preventing large fish from entering the net, and there was me saying "fear not, they go in, you just have to have faith" and then not ten minutes later we pull in the net and there's the largest red fish the guys had seen in years. Proof positive the TEDs work - we caught no turtles, and caught loads of shrimp and even large fish and rays. Whatever concerns existed earlier in the day evaporated in the warm Mississippi sunshine. Good weather, loads of fun, photos and video to keep us going for years, and the welcoming warmth of the NMFS Pascagoula crew. We couldn't have asked for a better start to the trip.

Day 2:

Following on from a very successful first day, the Malaysian TEDs Expedition continued to amaze. We had a great morning visiting a local packing and processing plant over in one of the most shrimp-oriented bayous in Alabama, and from there managed to tour some of the local boats, from one million dollar fishing vessels that stay out for thirty days or longer and process their catch on board, to smaller one-week trip boats, to overnight and day trippers. The variation in sizes and configurations was amazing, but what was even more impressive was seeing TEDs hanging from each and every net on every boat. No fail. Not a missing one anywhere. I think that was quite a revelation. Whereas in Sabah we are still experimenting with them, in the US they are standard equipment on each boat.

I must say that this way of sharing expertise - as in us coming to the US rather than the US coming to visit us - has to be the best way to do things. While I admit there are significant costs involved, there are significant advantages to the learning setting that outweigh any logistical or financial issues: Driving along the shores seeing boat after boat equipped with several TEDs just made the story stick. When the NMFS outreach team came to Sabah a few years ago with one or two TEDs, facing hundreds of boats without them, the message just didn't sink in. Seeing hundreds of boats with TEDs however made it all so much more real. The Sabah team got to talk with fishers who use them every day, who are not afraid of them, and who actually would use them even if they were not required. Now there's a message to take home.

Day 3:

Day three, and things just keep getting better. We had a full and thorough in-house lecture and video and presentation and discussion and practical session with several of the Pascagoula staff, all experts in gear technology and/or fisheries biology and/or fishing. We covered regulations, history of TEDs, of their implementation, and of the difficulties faced by the US when implementing TEDs domestically. We also looked at videos which showed the effectiveness of TEDs in eliminating debris, from tyres to coconuts to hard plastics. We watched how the NMFS dive team had filmed divers pushing large turtle-shaped frames through TED openings to ensure they would be large enough when used at sea by fishers. We covered regulations, and discussed paths to getting regulations drafted and pushed through the legal system.

"The takehome message was simple though: unless the fishers / industry themselves are involved, the process will fail."

e got to see how TEDs were effective at eliminating large sharks and rays, and even a turtle or two. The presentations covered not only the technical side of things, but also the practical side of things: what fishermen had developed on their own, and how many of their suggestions were adopted by the government as law.

The takehome message was simple though: unless the fishers / industry themselves are involved, the process will fail. Nice to hear that while we had actual industry reps with us on the trip!

Day 4:

We passed through the midpoint of this trip in grand style, and the finale has been nothing short of spectacular. The Sabah TEDs Expedition just continued to build on past successes, and undeniably will go down as a turning point in the TEDs quest back home. Day 4 was all hands on, and the team rose to the challenge in impressive form. The setting was a quiet closed-door net shed, where the Sabah team and Nick Hopkins, a gear specialist from NMFS took a flat piece of netting and a metal grid and turned them into a functional TED. This involved stitching netting panels together, hanging the grid at the appropriate angle, sewing it in, checking it, and then checking it twice, just to find out who had been good and who couldn't splice, before laying the flaps over the escape opening and sewing them in place. Now this is no mean feat: For a group of guys who aren't net menders, this took some doing. Not only was there the concept to follow, but also learning all the sewing tricks of the trade.

Much laughter amidst much banter and tomfoolery later, the TED hung proud from the NMFS rafters and a great sense of satisfaction flowed through the group. In my opinion this day sealed the deal: one thing is seeing a TED in a net, another is taking the raw materials and making it so. Without the physical hands-on training, in the quiet, focused setting we had devised, I doubt each of the team could have said at the end that they really knew what it took. While these may not be the guys who sew grids into nets back home, they are certainly going to be the guys who can spot the difference between right and wrong, and even step in and show our guys at home how it's done. In terms of confidence alone this was a trip maker.

Day 5:

We were back to the NMFS Pascagoula yard early in the morning for a second and last day of sea trials, and even a little poker to while away the tow times. Deck and captain supremos Drew and Dave took us back out on the RV Caretta to test good and bad TEDs. What was great about this day was the guys could actually tell the difference between the net / TED configurations and then see differences in catch.

What a contrast over doing things back home: Here we could see the results of two tows at once, as the Caretta pulled twin trawls through the Mississippi Sound. First up, we had a perfectly normal TED configuration compared with one set at an incorrect angle. It took no genius to see that the poor hanging angle resulted in at least a 30% drop in catch. Once again the Sabah crew jumped in to help sort the catch, and then helped lead the way in cooking up a storm for lunch. Malaysian cuisine met southern Mississippi boil-ups! Explosive is an understatement. Second tow we dragged two good TEDs but one with an extension, one without. Again it was clear to all of us the extension resulted in a good 20% increase in catch. For me what was really wonderful was hearing the comments and conversation amongst the gang, which over the past few days has evolved from whether or not to use a TED to how to best fish with the TEDs we will use. A subtle change, but an incredibly meaningful one. Coming back from the day's sea trials brought out a mixture of emotions, as we knew this rounded out the trip.

"It had been one of the best experiences of my conservation-oriented career...If there ever was a definition for 'Sharing without Borders' in the conservation world, this was it."

It has been one of the best experiences of my conservation-oriented career, and our hosts have been nothing short of exemplary. Caring, responsive, attentive, friendly and more welcoming than one could ever imagine. I can't think of a better way to get the message across than with a trip to meet the Pascagoula NMFS folk. I for one will be forever grateful, and I know the Sabah crew feel likewise. They have shared some wonderful moments with the fishing and gear specialists, and take home loads of lessons and advice. My thanks go to especially John Mitchell and Nick Hopkins for all of the time they put into arranging this and carrying it through. We are all in their debt. We also would like to thank Butch, Lionell, Lee, Dave, Drew, Dominy, and Louise for helping out and being such wonderful hosts, and to all those other Pascagoula folk who helped out behind the scenes. If there was ever a definition for "Sharing without Borders" in the conservation world, this trip was it.

The Marine Research Foundation is a non-profit research foundation based in Kota Kinabal. To know more about the TED project, visit MRF's site here.