By By Kimberly Castillo
Story Created: Nov 16, 2013 at 9:13 PM ECT
Story Updated: Nov 16, 2013 at 11:53 PM ECT
TRINIDAD’S leatherback turtle population is in rapid, continuous decline, according to the latest report by leatherback sea turtle expert Dr Scott Eckert from the United States.
In the October 2013 report, Eckert noted that despite strong growth in the population in the ’90s as well as progress in protecting turtles in their nesting beaches, the current status of the Trinidad nesting colony is alarming.
This rapid downward trend, which has been observed since 2006, can be traced to the high mortality of leatherbacks due to gillnet fishing.
If gillnet mortality is not eliminated, Trinidad’s leatherback population will continue to decrease, Eckert reports in his latest document, “An Assessment of Population Size and Status of Trinidad’s Leatherback Sea Turtle Nesting Colonies”.
Eckert based his findings on data collected throughout the ’90s up until 2012.
“The rapid decline trajectory of Trinidad’s nesting population is cause for alarm,” said Eckert, director of Science at the Wider Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST).
WIDECAST is a network of marine experts, conservationists and managers from 40 countries and territories.
Eckert said all studies indicate the decline in the leatherback population is local to the Trinidad colony, since the North American populations continue to increase.
Every year, it is estimated that more than 3,000 leatherbacks are caught in gillnets off the coasts of Trinidad.
The impact gillnet fishing has on reproductive turtles is a serious cause of concern—annually more than 1,000 egg-bearing turtles get entangled and drown or are killed while fishermen try to save their nets.
“Particularly alarming about the current population trajectory and the impact of fishing mortality on the population is that the source of mortality is directed at reproductive adult turtles. Reproductive-age sea turtles are the most sensitive component of any population, and their destruction has the greatest impact [on] population stability,” writes Eckert.
If gillnet fishing continues as it is today, the decline in Trinidad’s leatherback population will mirror the destruction of the world’s largest leatherback population in the Eastern Pacific, he warned.
In 1979, the leatherback population on the pacific coast of Mexico reportedly exceeded 75,000, but by 1995 the number dwindled to 1,000 and is believed to be even lower today.
Eckert reports the main cause for the decimation of the population was the introduction and deployment of large-scale gillnet fishing for swordfish in the 1980s in areas off Chile and Peru, which were also foraging grounds for the leatherback turtles.
In the report, Eckert said there have been efforts since 2005 to have alternative methods employed that can reduce entanglement by 65 to 90 per cent, and mortality by 90 to 100 per cent with no reduction in the fisher income.
But adoption of these methods has been slow, he reported.
“In the absence of widespread use of fishing methods that do not kill turtles, high sea turtle mortality within the coastal gillnet fishery will continue, with devastating results to the turtles,” he noted.
People’s National Movement councillor for Toco/Fishing Pond and former fisherman Terry Rondon said considering that the “a la vive” fishing method is one of the most productive fishing methods which does not endanger sea turtles, the Government should assist fishermen in adopting this alternative by supplying the fishers with live bait.
The availability of live bait is an obstacle to switching to “a la vive” or hook-and-line fishing.
Failing this, Rondon suggested Government provide incentives to fishermen to keep them out of the water during turtle-nesting months. This includes compensating fishermen for lost income during those months. To prevent fishermen from “outsmarting” this system, Rondon said the Government should establish legislation which would include penalties for those who continue to set nets in sea turtle-foraging grounds during the nesting months.