New fishing hook could reduce turtle deaths by 90 per cent

WWF International's Press Office

3 May 2004 - Olivier van Bogaert


    The few sea turtle hatchlings that
    reach maturity must also contend with
    hooks and nets.
Gland, Switzerland - Changing the shape of traditional fishing hooks and using a different bait could reduce the number of turtles accidentally snagged and killed by longline fisheries by up to 90 percent, says WWF, the global conservation organisation.

In partnership with scientists and the fishing industry, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently tested a circle-shaped hook in the Atlantic and the number of turtles killed was dramatically lowered. This new hook is better than the current “J” shaped hook which can be snagged or swallowed by turtles, leading to suffocation or internal bleeding if swallowed. In contrast, the circle hooks are much less likely to be swallowed by turtles, and easier to unhook when they are snagged.

WWF is supporting the expansion of the hook in the Eastern Pacific, with the hope that the technology can be taken up throughout the Pacific and used by European fleets in the future. According to WWF, accidental catch – or bycatch – is probably the single greatest threat to marine turtles. As many as 200 000 loggerheads and 50 000 leatherbacks are caught annually by commercial long-line tuna, swordfish, and similar fisheries. In the Pacific, the leatherback turtle population has dropped from 90 000 nesting females in the ‘80s to approximately 2000 today, the global conservation organisation points out.

The new hook has also in many cases led to higher swordfish catches. “The technology is cost-effective and also frees up hooks for tuna, swordfish and other species,” says Scott Burns, Director of the WWF US Marine Programme. “If fishermen decide to switch over to the new system, they will not only be helping protect endangered marine turtles, but they'll also be helping themselves financially in many instances.”

The new fishing gear tested in the Atlantic has already been introduced in some parts of Ecuador. Ecuador has the largest longline fleet in the Eastern Pacific region – an estimated 15 000 vessels – and the fleet operates in waters through which endangered turtles are known to migrate. WWF is working with local partners to test and measure results from different types of circle hooks and other bycatch mitigation techniques.

“If we are to ensure the continued survival of turtles, we must work to transform these fisheries – to make longline fishing more turtle-friendly,” says Dr Susan Lieberman, Director of WWF's Species Programme. “Wherever there is fishing, there is bycatch, one of the greatest and most pervasive threats to the marine environment in general, and marine turtles in particular. We must work together to minimise this bycatch to the greatest extent possible.”

To further encourage immediate action to reduce bycatch, WWF and an unprecedented partnership of fishermen, industry leaders and scientists are launching the “International Smart Gear Competition” at this week's World Fisheries Congress in Vancouver, British Colombia. The competition will offer a cash prize and technical assistance in bringing to market the most innovative bycatch reduction technology.