Several years ago, I spent a few days on a boat with a University of Florida sea turtle research team off the Azorean island of Faial. Using a long-handled dip net, the biologists scooped juvenile loggerheads out of the ocean. Once aboard the ship, the turtles, about the size of dinner plates, were measured, weighed, biopsied, tagged with IDs, and, within minutes, released.
At least that’s what happened to all but two of the three dozen loggerheads we caught that day. The exceptions had strands of monofilament fishing line protruding from their mouths. They had become hooked after taking the bait of a surface longline set for swordfish. While one of the turtles was reasonably lively, flapping its flippers and snapping at any fingers that came near its beaklike jaws, the other was listless, barely able to move.
I thought of those young loggerheads, a species that the United States government considers threatened, when I learned that the Marine Stewardship Council, the premier eco-certification organization for seafood, had bestowed its official blessing on the southeast North Atlantic longline swordfish fishery.
For swordfish, certification is an indication of good news. After more than a decade of conservation efforts and strict catch limits, populations of the resilient species have been rebuilt. Seafood Watch now rates longline-caught swordfish brought to North American ports as a “good alternative” for consumers.
But conservationists working to save the loggerhead greeted the MSC announcement with dismay. The tagging effort that the students were undertaking that day in the Azores, along with other research, showed that those juveniles would someday swim across the Atlantic to spend their mature years off the coast of the United States and the Caribbean, near the beaches where they had hatched. In order to get there, they would have to run a gauntlet of longline hooks. But in part because of turtles being unintentionally caught, loggerhead populations remain stubbornly in decline despite decades of conservation efforts.
“There has not been enough observation of the fishery to determine the number of turtles killed,” said Teri Shore, the program director of SeaTurtles.org, a California-based conservation group, in a phone interview.
SeaTurtles.org filed an official objection to the MSC’s decision, which Shore described as a “travesty of economic power over scientific data.” She said that much more observation and study of turtle bycatch (the term for unwanted species caught by commercial fishermen) is needed before the Florida swordfish fishery can be described as sustainable. “Now, it’s basically false advertising. Consumers are going to think there’s nothing wrong with swordfish.”
Kerry Coughlin, the MSC’s regional director for the Americas, told me that the Florida swordfish fishery had made significant improvements to lessen turtle bycatch, including changing the size of hooks and avoiding fishing at night, when turtles are more likely to be feeding. She also said that the fishermen have agreed to increase independent monitoring of bycatch on their boats. Currently, only 8 percent of boats have at-sea observers aboard to keep track of bycatch. Over the next five years, that will rise to 100 percent. “At the current level, turtle bycatch on longlines set for swordfish off the southeast U. S. will not impede the recovery of turtle populations,” Coughlin said.
SeaTurtles.org’s Shore said that certification should have been withheld until 100-percent monitoring had proven that bycatch was not a cause of loggerheads’ continued decline. “The point is that these turtles are facing extinction.” She worries that certification of the southeastern fishery is but one step in a slippery slope. The MSC is currently auditing the Canadian swordfish fishery, which, Shore says, catches more than 1,200 turtles per year.
For me, there’s a personal issue here. By the time that research boat got back to port in the Azores, the weaker of the two hooked loggerheads had died. A subsequent necropsy revealed that the fishing line had become ensnarled with strands of seaweed to form a tight, tangled ball in the turtle’s esophagus, causing the animal to starve.
With the other turtle weakening, the researchers called in a local vet, who normally dealt with small animals and livestock, but had added loggerheads to his list of specialties after the researchers began bringing him hooked specimens. After a 45-minute procedure, he extracted a three-inch-long hook from the turtle’s throat. The next morning, when we went out to tag another day’s quota of loggerheads, the survivor was released. For a few minutes it floated listlessly beside the boat, but then gave a thrust of its flippers and disappeared into the blue depths.
Within a year or so, instinct would drive the maturing turtle toward its natal beach, very possibly somewhere along the eastern coast of Florida. For now, it was free, but far from being completely off the hook.