Leatherbacks and Gill Nets Don’t Mix
While in Grand Riviere on Trinidad’s north coast, we got a call that a little farther west along the coast, in Matelot, a fisherman had some turtles tangled in a net. He couldn’t haul it; The turtles made the net too heavy.
All the boats here are simple and open. All net-hauling is done by hand. For most of the day the water was too rough for the fisherman to bring help out to the net.
Leatherbacks can hold their breath a full hour. For an air-breathing animal, that’s very long. For an animal tangled in a net, an hour is no time at all.
In late afternoon we headed out in mountainous swells that made me glad I was—uncharacteristically—wearing a life jacket. In the mile-or-so run to the net, Dan got seasick, Tim got scared, I got wet, and Valentina got ready to dive.
We saw immediately that the net’s floats had in several places balled up at the surface. Normally they’d be strung in a line, so it was obvious that there’d been a lot of twisting and turmoil. In an instant, one turtle’s head, thoroughly tangled, came out for a gasp. As the fishermen sliced up their net to cut it loose, Valentina managed some in-water footage. Freed, the turtle immediately dove for the depths.
The next turtle was at the surface, too. But its head was too tangled to let it breathe. It turned out dead. A third leatherback—also dead.
Scott Eckert tells me that fishermen’s nets tangle 3,000 turtles a year. Of those, 1,000 drown. This is in Trinidad alone, mind you.
And for the fishermen, cutting up a net to rid it of turtles—dead or alive—can mean days or even several weeks of down-time as a billowing net several hundred yards long must be repaired by hand. So they’re not happy either.
How I felt about it paled in comparison to the distress I imagined the turtles experienced, and the obvious trouble and danger that the fishermen were experiencing—what they experience in general—for little return. Even in the moment, it all seemed a nearly pointless product of poverty multiplied by zero options.
The huge success in Trinidad is that people no longer kill nesting turtles for meat. That stabilized this turtle population, then helped it grow to its present robust level. But the human population is growing too. That means more fishermen. The work remaining is what these fishermen might do about these nets. Can they find options for fishing? Options from fishing? And the deeper work: can the human be stabilized anytime soon?
At least as far as options for nets, I learned something about that, too. According to Dr. Scott Eckert, who has been working with fishermen, nets that hang from the surface down to only 15 feet catch far fewer turtles, and drown almost none—but they catch almost as many fish as nets 100 feet deep. That’s because the mackerel these fishermen target travel close to the surface much of the time. And those nets are cheaper. Tangled nets cost fisherman a lot of lost fishing time, as well as repair and replacement costs. Another alternative is trolling with hook and line. Compared to nets, there’s almost no investment in fishing gear, and there is zero harm to turtles.