Tens of thousands of turtles each year die at the hands of small-scale fishermen off the coast of South America, a new study has found.
Surveys at 43 harbours in Ecuador, Peru and Chile revealed gillnet fisheries catch more than 46,000 turtles per year. Of that number, 16,000 are killed in the process.
But, scientists fear the actual number could be even higher, as not all fishing ports in each country were examined as part of the analysis.
The study, carried out by researchers from the University of Exeter and Peruvian conservation organisation ProDelphinus, has been published in the journal Fisheries Research.
“People worry about industrial fisheries but a real concern that people are waking up to is small-scale fisheries,” said Prof Brendan Godley, of the University of Exeter’s centre for ecology and conservation.
“These are small vessels but they exist in such huge numbers that they can have a massive impact on ecosystems.”
Turtles living in the area covered by the study include leatherbacks, critically endangered in the east Pacific, and the hawksbill turtle, which has critically endangered status worldwide.
“This work highlights the importance and the benefits of our approach of engaging with fishers,” said Dr Joanna Alfaro, director of ProDelphinus.
“We are actively working with fishers in this region to develop and implement solutions to bycatch – not just to improve the situation for turtles but for the health of fisheries and fish stocks.
“Our goal is to develop fisheries that are sustainable for small-scale fishing communities and the species with which they interact.”
The study, supported by the Government’s Darwin Initiative, was designed to fill data gaps and identify priority areas for future conservation work.
“Gathering this survey data was a massive effort across three countries, and the results give us fascinating and important insights,” said Dr Jeffrey Mangel, also ProDelphinus
“We are careful not to overstate threats to wildlife, but in this case it’s clear that tens of thousands of turtles are being caught each year.”
There are seven different species of turtle present in oceans across the world, almost all of which are classified as endangered, according to the WWF.
The marine reptiles are threatened by poachers and habitat destruction, as well as the risk of accidental capture by fishermen.