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All for the sake of a tuna steak

by Anthea Torr

FILED IN: Endangered Species and Habitats · Issue 2

Sea turtles have inhabited the Earth for over 100 million years. Now, as a result of harmful fishing practices, these gentle ocean dwellers may only have 10 years left.

Sea turtles are often swept up in nets with tuna, swordfish, shark, tilefish and king mackerel, all of which contain a high methyl mercury level. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that can cause nervous system and brain damage in developing fetuses, infants and young children.

The exploitation of ocean resources and destructive industrial fishing technology has created severe and irreversible effects on the sea turtle population. When long line fishing occurs in areas where sea turtles migrate with tuna and other targeted fish, they are often hooked as well.

“Six out of the seven species of sea turtles are endangered or threatened. The primary reason is from industrial fishing in which they get caught on the hooks trying to eat the bait,” said Dr. Robert Overtz, a marine species campaigner for the USA’s Sea Turtle Restoration Project (STRP).

“Or they’re caught by accident, which is the case with the leatherback sea turtle.”

Worldwide, the leatherback sea turtle population faces the largest threat of extinction since suffering a 95 percent decline in 1980, and now nesting females number only 3 000 – down from 80 000 in the 1990s. The leatherback is only one of the six endangered sea turtle species. Ovetz feels the turtle is a striking example of the carelessness of human actions. STRP is committed to preventing further devastation to sea turtles and ocean ecosystems.

“Sea turtles are really an indicator of the state of the health of our oceans, and how we treat our oceans, and we’re seeing a dramatic decline in their survival,” said Dr. Overtz.

“Primarily because we’ve intensified our effort to exploit the ocean and, as our world population grows, there’s an increasing demand for seafood to supplement other sources of protein.”

The bait on long-line fishing hooks sometimes tempts sea turtles. In turn, they get caught, and then drown. By the time the lines are pulled up, they are already dead.

Destruction of habitat, the poaching of their eggs and the negligence to protect our marine resources are factors leading to extinction of their population as well.

Dr. Ovetz identifies the problem as under-recognition of the importance of ocean resources.

“There are six main countries that use long-line fishing in the pacific that are the most destructive,” he said, in reference to the United States, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Chile, and Spain.

“Each of these countries has very large industrial long-line fishing fleets and is causing the largest threat to our survival.”

There will always be a call for help somewhere and Dr. Ovetz found his call from the ocean. As a marine species campaigner, his passion is aimed at protecting the livelihood of the leatherback sea turtle.

“I have a very strong spiritual connection with the oceans and I’ve always had a very strong connection with turtles,” he said.

“The majesty of the way they move and their sense of time and how they walk lightly on the earth has always been something that’s really inspired me.”


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