Strategic Plan for Eliminating the Incidental Capture and Mortality of Leatherback Turtles in the Coastal Gillnet Fisheries of Trinidad and Tobago


Accidental entanglement of leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) in the gillnet fisheries of Trinidad is the most serious conservation problem faced by the species and threatens to undo several years of proactive conservation and innovative management by the government of Trinidad and Tobago and many local non-government organizations (NGOs). The entangle- ment problem also places a severe strain on the ability of Trinidad fishers to operate economically, and is so severe that many are unable to fish during the sea turtle nesting season.

Undisputed among stakeholders is that incidental capture is the largest single source of mortality to leatherbacks in the country, killing more leatherbacks than all other factors combined. Because it supports the second largest known nesting aggregation in the world, the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago plays a uniquely important role in the survival of this species on a global scale. With this in mind, incidental capture and mortality to reproductively active females in waters under the Republic’s jurisdiction constitute a major threat to this Critically Endangered (cf. IUCN) species on both Atlantic basin and global scales.

In an attempt to open a dialogue on these issues, and facilitate a stakeholder driven process of solution-making, a National Consultation was hosted by the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST) and the Fisheries Division (Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Marine Resources) in February 2005. Invited participants included fishers drawn from all affected communities, including representatives from Tobago, local and national NGOs, the government’s primary natural resource management agencies, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and a small number of international fishing and conservation experts.

The goal of the meeting was to review the problem of sea turtle bycatch in coastal gillnet fisheries, in particular along the north and east coasts of Trinidad where most leatherback nesting takes place, and to apply the shared expertise of the forum to devising a series of potential solutions suitable for field-testing and evaluation by fishers and natural resource management professionals. To this end, twin objectives were proposed: fishers must be better off economically as a result of any proposed solution to the bycatch crisis, and the incidental capture and mortality of leatherback sea turtles in coastal fisheries must cease.

The goal of the meeting was met through technical presentations in a conference setting, open- forum question and answer sessions, an all-day field excursion to coastal fishing communities and fishing depots, Working Group discussions, plenary consensus on recommendations, and publication of this Proceedings document.

Participants acknowledged that the problem is a difficult one, and that no single solution would likely suffice for all areas and all fisheries. Thus it was proposed that a series of investigations be designed to evaluate, under realistic field conditions, various bycatch reduction options including: new bait types (e.g. artificial, dead and non-traditional baits) to enhance hook-and- line fishing as a replacement for gillnets; new technologies, techniques, or gear modifications (e.g. power take-up reels, alternate net materials, FADs; net-fishing at different depths); and creative approaches to net avoidance (e.g. sonic ‘pingers’, shark silhouettes). It was agreed that each of these options should receive equal weight during the experimental phase, and that the results of each trial should determine subsequent experimental priorities.

New regulatory regimes, and in particular the implementation of time and area closures, were also discussed. The recommendation was made that gillnets be banned from 1 March to 31 May within a region extending from the south end of Fishing Pond Beach to the west end of Paria Beach, and extending 8km offshore. Other types of gear would be allowed. There was concern over the government’s capacity to enforce the closure, however, and the need for improved marine resource management capacity was noted. Also noted was the need to harmonize the Fisheries Act (specifically the 1975 Protection of Turtles and Turtle Eggs Regulations) and the Conservation of Wild Life Act, such that protection to the leatherback turtle at all times was unambiguous.

With regard to evaluating fishery alternatives, the meeting uniformly agreed that active fishermen must be involved in the testing and development of each new method, with oversight and assistance by relevant experts. It was proposed that the best mechanism for initiating the field-testing component would be to invite proposals from relevant national and international experts (see “Project Implementation Notes”), and that fund-raising, including the paid participation of fishers, would need to occur on a case-by-case basis.

Furthermore, there was consensus that the following criteria be taken into account when evaluating the various mitigation options:

  • What - will the experiment measure (objectives and variables)?
  • How - will the experiment be conducted (materials and methods)?
  • Where - will the experiment be conducted?
  • Who - will conduct and evaluate the results of the experiment?

There was also consensus that the following Evaluation Criteria be adopted:

  •  Can the new technique catch fish?
  •  Is it economically viable (i.e. producing equivalent or increased revenue)?
  •  Does it reduce adverse impact to leatherback sea turtles?
  •  Can it be managed/regulated?
  •  Is it logistically feasible for local conditions?
  •  Is it biologically and commercially sustainable?
  •  Will it be supported/accepted by the stakeholders?

Finally, there was widespread interest among participants that a mechanism be created, perhaps by Government, to facilitate an ongoing dialogue between fishers and natural resource managers, and embracing the expertise of communities and NGOs, on subjects of fisher concern regarding the bycatch issue and the hardships endured during the seasonal struggle to fish in the presence of large numbers of leatherback turtles. 

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