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Illegal Fishing, Lack of Bycatch Regulations Pose Serious Threat to Endangered Marine Turtles, Study Finds

A comprehensive study finds that, while the legal harvest of sea turtles has fallen since the 1980s, illegal fishing and bycatch are posing a bigger threat to marine sea turtles.



Marine turtles face a high threat of global extinction. The ancient swimmers need to combat many human-induced challenges to survive, including becoming harvested through legal and illegal fishing, and getting unintentionally caught as bycatch.


Since 1975, over 170 countries have signed an agreement that restricts the international trade of sea turtle products. But, 42 countries or territories still allow the legal harvesting of sea turtles, and more than 42,000 sea turtles are caught legally each year, a recent study found.


The nonprofit Blue Ventures Conservation and the University of Exeter worked together to gather these findings on all seven species of marine turtles, including green, loggerhead, and leatherback turtles. The results will help researchers better understand the threats that affect these animals.


The paper, published in the journal Diversity and Distributions, is the first in recent years to comprehensively review the legal harvest of sea turtles. The species are all listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.


Most of the legal fishing takes place in traditional coastal communities or small-scale fisheries. Many of the fishing departments in these areas did not have official or up-to-date data on sea turtle catches, so the researchers relied on more than 500 publications and 150 in-country experts to tally their results.


 “We were surprised to find that there are 42 countries with no legislation in place that prohibits the harvest of marine turtles, although for many of these countries these harvests provide important sources of protein or income,” said Dr. Annette Broderick, a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter, in a press release. “It is however important to ensure that these fisheries are operating at a sustainable level.”


While legal harvesting poses a threat to some populations of marine turtles, the take from legal catches has fallen 60 percent since the 1980s, reported the researchers.  Meanwhile, bycatch and illegal fishing pose a greater threat to the turtles’ survival.


Bycatch may result in hundreds of thousands of turtle deaths per year, the researchers state. Bycatch kills 44,000 sea turtles each year in just the Mediterranean, a 2011 study cited by the researchers estimated.


Illegal fishing takes place in areas that allow harvesting, and in countries that ban it.  In Mexico alone, at least 65,000 turtles have been illegally caught since 2000.


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