August 16, 2004 — After several years under mandatory restrictions, the U.S. swordfish longline fishery in the Pacific and the Grand Banks in the Atlantic are operating again — now that there is a viable solution to help reduce sea turtle bycatch on longline gear. Based on studies supported or conducted by NOAA Fisheries, in cooperation with fishermen, academia and private industry, certain style hooks and bait combinations have demonstrated a reduction in sea turtle/longline gear interactions. An earlier study funded by NOAA Fisheries and conducted by the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research, University of Florida, in collaboration with the University of the Azores, found that the use of circle hooks significantly reduced the chance of serious injury to sea turtles. The traditional “J”-style hook caught 80 percent of the turtles in the throat compared to 10 percent for the circle hook. In a second study conducted by the NOAA Fisheries Pascagoula Laboratory and the NOAA Fisheries Miami Laboratory, in cooperation with Blue Water Fishermen’s Association, encounters with leatherback and loggerhead turtles were reduced by 65 and 90 percent, respectively, by switching from the traditional hook to large (18/0) circle hooks baited with mackerel. NOAA Fisheries, in collaboration with private industry, has also developed devices to improve disentangling and dehooking sea turtles when it is safe to do so without further injury to the turtle.
This research was such a success that NOAA Fisheries now requires the use of these new technologies in U.S. longline fisheries in both the Atlantic and Pacific. Specifically, U.S. longline fishermen in the Pacific are now required to use circle hooks instead of the standard industry J-hook and squid bait and are required to carry certain types of equipment and utilize handling protocols to facilitate the safe release of sea turtles (i.e., dipnets, dehookers and line cutters).
"This program is a fine example of a cooperative effort between NOAA Fisheries, fishing industry organizations, academia and private industry to solve a complex environmental problem. The positive results will ensure a healthy and richly diverse marine ecosystem," said Bill Hogarth, director of NOAA Fisheries. "The development of effective measures to minimize sea turtle bycatch will help ensure successful turtle conservation efforts and allow valuable commercial fisheries to continue to operate."
NOAA Fisheries and its partners also launched an education initiative to share the results of this work with the international longline fishing community and invite them to utilize these new technologies in an effort to protect sea turtles by making all the worlds longline operations more selective.
and Endangered Sea Turtles
of Fisheries on Sea Turtles
NOAA originally addressed this issue by placing restrictions on U.S. longline fishing fleets (i.e., extensive time and area closures) in the Western Pacific and the Grand Banks fishing grounds in the Atlantic. However, because sea turtles are highly migratory (and U.S. boats represent only six percent of the worldwide longline fishing effort) they encounter longline fleets operating throughout the ocean basins. “In order to effectively protect these species, other nations must also address sea turtle bycatch in their longline fleets,” Dr. Hogarth stated. “NOAA Fisheries and its partners are advocating a global approach to turtle conservation.”
Fortunately, exciting new developments in gear and longline fishing methods in the Atlantic Ocean have found that using 18/0 circle hooks and mackerel as bait significantly reduced both the loggerhead and leatherback turtle take when compared to the industry standard J-hooks and squid bait. Why? Because sea turtles can't easily ingest large circle hooks. Circle hooks were also found to be much less likely to snag drifting leatherbacks. The more traditional longline fishing hooks (J-hooks) baited with squid, however proved to be much more harmful to sea turtles because they can be more deeply ingested and are more difficult to remove. In fact, NOAA and partners found that encounters with leatherback and loggerhead turtles can be reduced by as much as 65 percent to 90 percent just by switching the type of hook and bait from the traditional J-hook with squid to a large circle style hook (which is rounder and has a much smaller opening) with mackerel.
Most sea turtle deaths attributed to commercial fishing gear occur when the gear is not removed (or removed improperly) from the turtle. As a result, NOAA researchers and private industry developed dehookers and line cutters — so that fishermen could remove longline gear when it was safe to do so without further injury to the sea turtle. Removing gear is believed to decrease post-release mortality.
The success of the longline gear experiments and recent estimates of sea turtle bycatch in the Atlantic pelagic longline fishery prompted NOAA Fisheries to propose mandatory changes in fishing practices for the fleet. With the institution of these changes, turtle takes should be significantly reduced and U.S. fishermen have regained access to prime swordfish fishing grounds in the Northeast Distant Fishery and other U.S. longline fishing areas. Results of the studies have also received the endorsement of fishermen and the World Wildlife Fund, a non-governmental organization working to conserve sea turtles and other imperiled species around the globe.
and Outreach Efforts
In 2003, NOAA partnered with the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission to conduct training workshops for sea turtle bycatch reduction. More than 800 fishermen throughout Ecuador attended the workshop. NOAA recently participated in similar workshops in Costa Rica and there is growing interest in other countries, such as Japan and Taiwan.
Technologies and techniques developed by NOAA Fisheries to mitigate turtle bycatch in longling fisheries have already been introduced to Pacific Islands with their growing longline fleets. Assistance activities have also been completed in the Federated States of Micronesia, and are currently underway in Papua New Guinea and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (and will soon begin in the Solomon Islands).
“Our cooperative research with industry has shown that these turtle bycatch reduction techniques have been successfully tested in the Atlantic and are a viable solution for meeting similar objectives in other areas,” said Hogarth. “I’m asking all nations to match our efforts and evaluate these techniques in their fisheries so we can meet our shared responsibility to protect sea turtles and allow commercial fishing to prosper,” he added.
NOAA Sea Turtle Efforts and Activities
NOAA Ocean Service