Are we winning the battle to save sea turtles?

We have come a long way since early conservationists started with many beleaguered nesting sea turtle populations in the middle to the late part of the 20th Century. Nesting turtles are now protected in many countries around the world, there are now very few large legal harvests, and many populations, such as the one we study in Ascension Island have begun to recover incredibly well.

Leatherback sea turtle released from fishing net. Pic: Tim Collins, WCS

I feel that the level of awareness of sea turtle conservation and goodwill towards this charismatic animal group is at an all-time high. This is down to a tremendous cadre of people (many thousands) who work tirelessly for turtles across the globe. Sea turtles are a good news story and cause for ocean optimism. There is, of course, still work to be done.

The challenge now, is to look after turtles in the sea as the main threat to sea turtles is in incidental capture in fisheries (bycatch). There has been much focus on large-scale driftnets, longlines and trawlers and a great deal of progress made. Recently it has become ever more apparent that because of where they operate and their very large numbers that coastal and inshore fisheries are responsible for very high levels of bycatch. It may be that each vessel does not catch many, but when scaled up their impact can be substantial e.g. in Peru.

Illegal trawlers in Conkouati-Douli National Park.  Pic: Tim Collins, WCS

To effect change, however, fishers need to be engaged in the process. As a case in point, I outline a current Darwin Initiative Project we are supporting in Conkouati-Douli National Park in the Republic of Congo, Central Africa. The park plays host to important populations of elephants, chimpanzees and lowland gorillas but also has important aggregations of nesting olive ridley and leatherback sea turtles and humpback dolphins. These are co-located with impoverished people living in coastal areas who have high degree of fisheries dependence and limited alternative livelihood opportunities. There is a modest degree of turtle bycatch, but perhaps of greater concern is the much larger effort associated with unregulated trawl fisheries who are a source of conflict with the artisanal fishers and has an, as yet, unassessed impact on marine turtles.

Fishermen in Conkouati-Douli National Park. Pic: Tim Collins, WCS

Using a participatory approach, artisanal fishers are volunteering to carry GPS trackers to map their activities in high resolution, allowing us to assess their footprint, possible bycatch interaction hotspots and integrate their needs into future marine spatial planning for marine protected areas that can have maximum benefit to biodiversity (and ultimately fisheries as a result of spillover) with minimal cost to stakeholders. These data will hopefully feed into the development of a marine plan similar to that in neighbouring Gabon, which is also of global importance for marine turtles, which has recently announced a new network of marine parks that will comprise 23% of its EEZ.

Olive ridley sea turtle in Conkouati-Douli National Park. Pic: Brendan Godley

Although the well demonstrated threats of direct take, habitat loss and degradation may still be of concern to some populations, and we must consider emerging threats such as climate change and marine plastic pollution, artisanal and small scale fisheries is the key area on which I believe we must focus our efforts. A more coherent ecosystem based approach is undoubtedly important. Moreover, progress in this regard is crucial to sustain the livelihoods of many millions of coastal people who are so dependent on the sea for nutrition and employment. 

Brendan Godley is the Professor of Conservation Science/Director of the Centre for Ecology & Conservation at the University of Exeter. Follow Brendan on Twitter @BrendanGodley