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All species of sea turtles have been listed as threatened by CITES
All species of sea turtles have been listed as threatened by CITES
Courtesy of NOAA


There are seven species of sea turtles worldwide, distributed mainly in tropical and subtropical waters of the oceans. Most species have a life span of almost one hundred years and a life cycle that requires sandy beaches, sea grass beds and the high seas. Because of their broad distribution range, both in terms of distances covered and of types of habitat required, sea turtles interact with a wide variety of human activities. These interactions often result in high mortality where populations of some species are badly affected, sometimes to the point of extinction. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) lists three species as critically endangered and another three as endangered. All species are identified by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) as threatened with extinction and trade is therefore prohibited.

Pouching of sea turtle eggs, the destruction of key habitats and the direct exploitation of juvenile and adults are known to have a strong, negative impact on sea turtle populations. Direct capture of sea turtles has also represented a major source of mortality. In fact, all sea turtle species have a potentially high commercial value. Their eggs and meat are highly-valued as food, their skin can be used for leather production, their carapaces have been commonly used for production of ornamental objects and oils in cosmetic creams or medicines.

Apart from the traditional exploitation by indigenous communities, commercial catches of sea turtles in some areas experienced an exponential increase in the 1960s for the skin and carapace, leading some populations to the point of extinction. For example, in Mexico, sea turtle captures increased from 500 tonnes (about 6 000 individuals) in the 1950s to 14 590 tonnes (about 375 000 individuals) in 1968. Direct take of sea turtles was also an important commercial activity in other Caribbean states (mainly Cuba). Because of the negative impacts on the populations, which made fisheries unprofitable, Mexico introduced a total ban on sea turtles take in 1971 and the CITES listing lead to an important reduction in overall sea turtle captures.

The relative importance of various sources of mortality on sea turtles varies from region to region and with populations. However, sea turtle bycatch in various fisheries is believed to have a substantial impact on sea turtle populations. Although data are scant, sea turtles are known to be taken in various types of fisheries, both coastal and offshore, especially those that use gillnets, trawls (particularly shrimp trawls), pelagic longlines, set nets and purse seines, causing concern that fisheries may represent, at least in some cases, an important cause of observed declines in sea turtle populations.

Before the introduction of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) in 1989, estimates indicate that the United States shrimp fleet alone caught over 47 000 sea turtles each year. Recent estimates of sea turtle captures of loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles in the longline fisheries worldwide show that about 200 000 loggerheads and 50 000 leatherbacks might have been incidentally caught in 2 000. These two species have experienced a sharp decline in the Pacific and the present level of mortality is believed to be unsustainable and could result in the extinction of the above populations within a few years.

Within the context of implementing responsible fisheries, reducing impacts on non-target species - particularly on vulnerable, long-lived species such as sharks, seabirds and sea turtles -- is now a policy for many States, as well as for an increasing number of regional and subregional fisheries management organizations. The reduction of discards and environmental impacts is likewise a priority activity for FAO where it is specifically addressed in the work plan under the title "Reduction of discards and environmental impact from fisheries".

While there is an urgent need to reduce any type of mortality, at least for some sea turtle populations, implementing appropriate management measures is characterized by multiple challenges. These are related to the lack of sound scientific advice, mainly because of lack of data on non-commercial species, the need of minimizing negative impacts on peoples' livelihoods, the lack of appropriate institutional frameworks at the national, regional and international levels and the seemingly contradictory objectives of environmental sustainability versus poverty alleviation, just to mention a few.

Possible solutions

Management measures that may be appropriate for reducing sea turtle mortality due to fisheries include technical measures, input and output controls and incentive-aligning strategies. Technical measures that are thought or have proven to be efficient are gear modifications such as the Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) in trawl fisheries and the use of circle hooks and appropriate gear configuration in longline fisheries and area closures, in connection, for example, with seasonal sea turtle migrations. In most cases, however, these measures will be effective only if they are part of a concerted action that includes reduction of all major sources of sea turtle mortality.

Action taken

Many countries have specific legislation in force to protect sea turtles but effectiveness varies from country to country. Furthermore, because most species/populations have a wide distribution, it is of critical importance that an integrated geographic framework is established for conservation policies.

International conventions exist that relate directly to turtle conservation, including protection of sea turtle critical habitats (e.g. the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals or CMS) and those that relate to trade in turtle and turtle products (e.g. CITES). At the regional level, the Inter-American Convention on the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles (IAC) specifically addresses sea turtle mortality resulting from fisheries. A number of MOUs (Memorandum of Understanding) are being signed as part of CMS Convention. Furthermore, a number of regional fishery management bodies such the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM), the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) have begun examining sea turtle bycatch, or have even adopted measures to address bycatch as part of their overall fisheries management schemes.

The Twenty-fifth Session of the Committee on Fisheries (COFI) raised the question of sea turtles conservation and interactions with fishing operations and agreed that, while taking into consideration existing work on sea turtle interactions and conservation, meetings were needed to improve the information globally available on the turtle issue. FAO held a number of expert and technical meetings in 2004 to:

• review the available information on the current status of sea turtle conservation including both incidental and direct catches, their impacts on the populations and other factors affecting the mortality of sea turtles;
• review the new development of fishing gears and techniques to reduce sea turtle mortality by incidental catches and other techniques to improve sea turtle conservation;
• examine socio-economic and managerial implications;
• produce guidelines to reduce sea turtle mortality in fishing operations; and
• consider desirable assistance to Members of developing countries for the conservation of sea turtles.

A Technical Consultation resulted in achieving agreement on technical guidelines on reducing sea turtle mortality in fishing operations. Furthermore, FAO has implemented a number of case studies to look at the relative importance of fishery-related sea turtle mortality as compared to the other sources of mortality. Where relevant, technical support has been provided to fisheries management authorities in developing countries to identify appropriate measures to reduce interactions and preliminary results show that appropriate use of knowledge and technology can reconcile conservation and fisheries interests.


Conservation concerns are increasingly becoming part of fisheries management. Developing fishing practices that limit negative effects on sea turtle populations is already an important endeavour of many research laboratories and fisheries administrations. There is therefore a real possibility of improving the present situation. Important challenges, however, still pave the way to ecosystem sustainability and are related to governance and to the possibility of reconciling sustainable environment with sustainable livelihoods.

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