Blog Tags: Bycatch
Warning: what follows isn’t exactly light reading.
The New York Times reported yesterday on the complicated task of performing necropsies -- i.e., animal autopsies -- on sea turtles and other creatures that have been found dead in the Gulf of Mexico since the spill started.
It’s not easy to determine the cause of death of these creatures. Of the 1,978 birds, 463 turtles and 59 marine mammals found dead in the Gulf since April 20th, few show visible signs of oil contamination.
And in the case of sea turtles, a more familiar culprit may be at fault: shrimp trawls and other commercial fishing gear that scoop up turtles as bycatch and prevent them from going to the surface to breathe.
Here’s a simplified breakdown of how the veterinary investigators begin to determine the cause of death:
The study found that 85,000 sea turtles were reported caught by commercial fisheries worldwide over the last 20 years, but the scientists estimate that the actual number is two orders of magnitude higher than that -- in the millions.
The 85,000 figure only accounts for sea turtle bycatch that was reported, but the actual number of turtles caught is significantly higher because typically less than 1% of fleets have fishing observed and many small scale fisheries have no observer coverage at all.
The study looked at sea turtles caught by gillnets, longlines and trawls, three of the most commonly used fishing gear types. The bottom line here is that the number of sea turtles caught as bycatch is enormous. Without additional bycatch reduction and better enforcement of established protections, many sea turtle populations may go extinct.
This winter has been a doozy around the country, and not just for humans. On Tuesday, The Miami Herald published a letter to the editor from Oceana's chief scientist Mike Hirshfield on the effect of this year's harsh winter on sea turtles. Check it out:
Officials are calling this one of the worst years on record for sea turtle strandings in the United States. Approximately 2,500 sea turtles have been found wounded or dead as a result of cold-stunning in the increasing frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Volunteers are busily scouring the coastline for sea turtles that can be rehabilitated and eventually released back into the wild, and rescue centers are becoming inundated with sea turtles fighting for survival.
To a scientist, it all makes perfect, if unfortunate, sense. Cold-blooded reptiles like sea turtles are simply unable to warm themselves in cold water. While sea turtles are commonly found in northern U.S. waters during the summer and early fall, they typically migrate to warmer climates by late October. Unfortunately, not all of them made it out before the area temperatures dropped to unbearable levels, and with a winter like we are having, it is bound to be a deadly scenario.
Actress Kate Walsh, star of ABC’s “Private Practice,” (and that fantastic Cadillac commercial) has joined Oceana in our campaign to protect sea turtles. Needless to say, we are tickled to have her on board.
Walsh travelled with Oceana scientists to the U.S. Virgin Islands this summer, where she encountered leatherback hatchlings and swam with green sea turtles. (Watch the video below -- she's impressively graceful in the water).
Check out Kate's new website with Oceana, http://oceana.org/turtlesoffthehook, where you can see her new PSA about turtles, photo slideshows and bonus footage, and sign up to join Kate in the fight to get turtles off the hook. Plus, don't forget to check out the interview with Kate in the latest Oceana newsletter.
On Friday afternoon, I took a field trip, as I'd hoped, to the new exhibit at the National Geographic museum, Whales | Tohor?. I thought it was exceptional; it engaged all the senses (except taste) with interactive features both scientific and and cultural. The centerpiece of the exhibit -- the first thing I noticed -- was an impressive 58-foot long male sperm whale skeleton that was found beached in 2003. Next I checked out the series of ancient whale skeletons. The world's first whale, pakicetus attocki, looked an awful lot to me like an R.O.U.S.... It was neat to watch as each successive skeleton's limbs grew smaller and smaller, until they started to look like the whales we know and love -- 'twas quite a visual lesson in evolution.