Project news

The smile which saves sea turtles

By Nicolas Pilcher, 20th June 2013

For those of you in the know, shrimp trawl fisheries can have a devastating impact on sea turtles if not equipped with some sort of escape device. Turtles and shrimp just happen to share the same habitats underwater, and wide mouths of shrimp trawl nets can gobble up unsuspecting turtles accidentally in seconds – along with the intended catch. Dinner tables around the world crave for shrimp, while conservation agencies and a stunningly large and growing cadre of people around the world see the need to ensure sea turtle survival. So how does one solve this major conflict?

The answer lies in an amazingly simple device: the turtle excluder device, or TED for short. This little device is nothing but a rigid grid through which the catch passes while large objects – such as our turtles – are literally barred from entry and excluded through a flap. This short note concerns these amazing devices, and the steps one country in Southeast Asia – Malaysia – is taking to get them introduced.

Malaysia initiated a programme to exclude turtles from shrimp trawl nets in 2007, but this year marks a huge milestone in the implementation of its turtle-saving efforts: the design and testing under rigorous and controlled trials of the first Malaysia TED – or the Smiley Face TED.

And on hand to witness this major step forward was none other than the Director General of the Fisheries Department of Malaysia, Dato’ Ahamad Sabki b. Mahmood. Dato’ had travelled to the US with one of his officers, Syed Abdullah, to take part in the trials following an invitation by John Mitchell, of the US National Marine Fisheries Service Pascagoula lab (NMFS), and myself at the Marine Research Foundation (MRF). Dato’s visit this month was the icing on the cake – who better to witness the trials of the Malaysian TED in action and be the torch-bearer for the programme but the Director General himself?

This visit was the culmination of several years of collaboration between NMFS and MRF under which NMFS gear specialists had been to Malaysia to help run training workshops, and MRF had participated in in-depth training at the NMFS facilities. Through this collaborative process a group of Malaysian fishers participated in a learning exchange to the NMFS facilities in Pascagoula, Mississippi in 2009, and yet another group of fishery department officers visited the NMFS facilities in Panama City in 2012. The technical support and encouragement provided by NMFS led to the modification of a super-shooter TED to allow the catch of stingrays, highly valued as an opportunistic by-product in Malaysia’s shrimp fisheries. The Malaysian TED design is such that it incorporates a four-inch (10cm) horizontal bar curved at the bottom of the vertical grids which allows the passage of flat, bottom-dwelling rays while still excluding turtles. The curved bar and the bottom of the oval outer rim of the TED form a smiley face large enough to allow the passage of 50-60cm wide rays.

In the United States, where TEDs have been used for decades and there exists a lengthy history of their development and testing, the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service have developed a testing protocol whereby hand-reared turtles are purposefully fed into the net and timed as they escape through the TED. A control TED is used to set the benchmark, following which new designs are tested for efficiency. If the new design performs as well, or better than the control, it passes, and the NMFS legal offices write it up as a certified TED design. Fail, and its back to the drawing board.

So it was with much anticipation that we packed a couple of these TEDs up in Malaysia and trekked half way round the globe to Panama City, Florida, for rigorous testing of the Malaysian-designed TED, and to introduce the DG to the NOAA team and the TED programme. Following a long delay in Atlanta due to weather, and a slight detour as I forgot the way from the airport, we finally arrived at our hotel after dark; tired, weary, and yet optimistic we had a great design in hand.

Day two of our trip saw the NOAA team still tied to the dock as yesterday’s weather front passed by, providing the opportunity for the DG to meet formally with the NOAA team, and even to meet a couple of hundred hand-reared one- and two-year old loggerhead turtles. We toured Panama City’s harbour looking at boats with various TED designs, and making plans for testing on Day 3. It also gave the NOAA guys a chance to quickly remedy a small design flaw on the TED we had overlooked.

Day 3 was D-Day: Armed with a deck-load of turtles and the smiling Malaysian TED, a number of divers, technicians, gear experts, boat crews, timers and video cameras, we set off early in the morning to deploy the net in calm conditions, 5m or so of visibility and 10m or so of water under the keel. The TED was measured in every possible way: How wide were the openings? How tall was it? How wide? Bar thickness, angle of attack. You name it, the NOAA team measured it and carefully recorded every detail.

The test protocol called for turtles to be sent down to a team of divers one by one, whereby they would be released into the net and followed to the escape flap at the TED. How long would they take? Would they get stuck and need rescuing? Would they pass the test and let us bring home a certified Malaysian-designed TED? We watched as the net went in. Tension was building as the net was slowly deployed, the grid and cameras went over the side, and the otter boards took the net down to the seabed.

Dato’, Syed and I stood on the rear deck as turtle number one headed down the line to the divers below. We waited with baited breath – no pun intended – for the appearance of a green float in the wake of the RV Caretta signaling a successful emergence. A minute passed from when the turtle was released into the net, and then, just thirty seconds or so later, there was the float. Turtle number one was through! What a relief! Then turtle number two was headed down the line, and the divers released it into the net. The clock was ticking. Come on, come on, turtle….. There! Another green float. Another success. Turtle three: success again. Turtle four: again a green float. This was going like clockwork. Dato’ and Syed were elated. I was massively relieved. The NOAA team was cheering the turtles on. One by one, through the rest of the day, a total of 25 turtles were tested, and all 25 passed with flying colours. Average time from release to escape? One minute and fourteen seconds. Not a single capture, not a single turtle stuck in the rigid bars. A complete success.

On our last day Marlene Menard from the US Department of State joined us to brief the DG on the way the fisheries laws are administered in the US, and jointly they discussed possible collaborations in the future. The first signs of this coming to fruition is a proposed visit by NMFS gear specialists to Malaysia this coming September to brief a wider group of officers from the Fisheries Department, and also to help conduct trials and net-making workshops, at the direct invitation of the Government of Malaysia. Importantly of note here, is the transition from an NGO-driven interest to see TEDs widely introduced, to a Government commitment and realisation of their benefits for turtle conservation. As I have noted several times in the past, NGOs don’t run fishery programmes, Government agencies do. This trip in many ways signals the largest milestone to date in the evolution of the programme.

Looking back on the sequence of events we have undergone while introducing TEDs, we are possibly the most advanced country in the region and the future can only get better. In 2007 we started this work in one of the Malaysian states, Sabah, where we worked with fishers conducting trial after trial to get TEDs working just right, followed by more work in 2008 and 2009 to expand the programme to new ports, develop a learning video, and conduct the first fisher exchange from Malaysia. We then expanded the programme from a State level to a Federal level and conducted seminars and trials in Terengganu, whereupon the Federal Department of Fisheries expanded the reach even further, bringing in donor support, expanding the reach to additional States, and tinkling with the design of the TED to address fishermen’s concerns over the loss or sting rays. The Malaysian TED programme has advanced in leaps and bounds.

Shortly before leaving Panama City, Dato’ turned to Syed Abdullah and started sketching out the plans he wanted to see implemented for the expansion in Malaysia the minute we all got home: Brief the Minister on the results of the trip and the designs for the future; Check. Set up a National TED Committee which includes gear people, district officers, State Directors, and technical advisors; Check. Develop short- and medium-term implementation plans; Check. Training workshop next September; Check. Wide-scale use of TEDs in the coming November shrimp season; Check. I was overwhelmed. The highest representative from the Department of Fisheries Malaysia accepted that TEDs were going to save turtles – and likely even improve the livelihoods for fishermen – and was taking immediate steps. The proverbial train has left the station, and is gathering momentum.

I can’t stress sufficiently just how grateful I am to John Mitchell and the whole NOAA crew who have been so supportive of our work over the years: Dominy Hataway, Dan Foster, Jeff Gearhart, Nick Hopkins, Jack Forrester, Kendall Falana, Lionel Laforce, Dale Stevens, Keith Bates, and Drew Hopper and Dave Saksa of the RV Caretta from Pascagoula; Ben Higgins and his team from Galveston; and Guy Davenport and his team at Panama City. I’m also so glad to have had Marlene Menard leading the programme from the US Department of State, as she has been supportive from the very start. Finally, if it were not for the donors over the years, we’d hardly be anywhere! In Malaysia the GEF Small Grants Programme supported our work in those initial years, followed by Conservation International Philippines. Funding from NOAA’s PIRO office in Honolulu, facilitated by Irene Kinan Kelly, helped drive the programme further with the support of the 2012 exchange, and NOAA’s international office gave us funds for training and support. Finally, ongoing support over the last three years –specifically funds for this recent successful trip to the US – by the Save our Seas Foundation, has allowed this programme to mature to this stage. I look forward to being there as it grows. Thanks everyone!

Nick Pilcher, Marine Research Foundation, June 2013.

Leave a Reply

Project See project and more news