Rising up to the challenge: Saving sea turtles in Malaysia

Photo Credit: Nicolas J PiIcher – MRF

By Dr Nicolas J Pilcher, Marine Research Foundation, Malaysia. RISE UP Partner

It seems not so long ago that I first contemplated sea turtle conservation in Malaysia and realised that the strategy was basically just to count them until they went extinct. The leatherback turtle has done just that already. Not really my idea of success. All nesting beaches were protected or under some form of management, but this was not where the problem was. Sea turtles – as their very name implies – spend their lives at sea, and that’s where they were meeting their demise.

Specifically the bycatch of turtles by bottom trawlers was rampant and it was the widespread adoption of this fishing method, introduced to Malaysia after WW2 that was the primary cause of their dwindling numbers.

Something had to be done. I was a research scientist. What would I know about implementing conservation programmes? I knew Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) were used elsewhere successfully, so why not in Malaysia? How hard could it be?

In the early 1990s the US had pressured countries to use TEDs in order to export shrimp products and access US markets. This did not go down well in Malaysia, nor in many other countries. Many argued it contravened WTO free trade policies. To make matters worse, fishermen spend their days fixing holes in nets, and a TED requires a large trapdoor to allow a sea turtle to escape. There was no way they were going to be happy to open up a massive hole and risk losing their catch. How then, could a small NGO of only a few people get TEDs adopted and save Malaysia’s sea turtles? The idea seemed daunting.

Photo Credit: Nicolas J PiIcher – MRF

The answer was in adopting a one-boat-at-a-time approach. We started out small and we approached a fishing cooperative and explained the problem: “Sea turtles are caught accidentally. We understand that it is unintentional, but nonetheless, something needs to be done.” “We’re not responsible,” they argued back. “Look, I know you don’t wake up in the morning thinking ‘let me go kill a turtle’ – I get it, but we can help save sea turtles and at the same time help you save fuel and come back with a more marketable catch…”. “Hmm, interesting proposition, tell us more.”

And that’s how it started. We explained that in the absence of a 100kg turtle in their nets they would save fuel and demonstrated the fact using portable fuel flow meters We also explained how having a large turtle thrashing around trying to escape damaged both their catch and their nets and that reducing the turtle bycatch would result in a cleaner, less damaged product and less downtime repairing nets. Indeed, this is what we found.

Photo Credit: Marc Sans Bassa – MRF

However this still required fishers to incorporate a massive trapdoor (albeit covered with a mesh flap) in their nets and they were still convinced that fish and shrimp would find the opening and callout to all their fellow fish and shrimp to follow them. So we set to dispelling this myth too. We assembled some long-duration underwater camera systems so that fishers could see in real-time that the flap was closed, and that fish and shrimp were all swept along to the cod end. The video demonstrations became a key aspect of our work with each new skeptical fisher able to watch his net being towed along the seabed safely catching fish and shrimp while the TED ejected large items like turtles, logs, tyres, and once even a dishwasher!

However, the voluntary adoption programme was really not the way to eliminate turtle bycatch in the long run. For this, we needed the government to come on board, which we achieved through a series of learning exchanges where we took Malaysian fishers and government officials to the US to see TEDs in action. This strand of work culminated in 2013, when we took the Director General of the fisheries department over. This was the tipping point – he took one look at the US programme and decided that something equivalent was required back at home.

Photo Credit: Nicolas J PiIcher – MRF

Not a month after our return the first meeting of a Task Force was convened to oversee the long-term implementation of TEDs in Malaysian trawl fisheries. Four States are now up and running, and even certified to export shrimp into the US market. We estimate these four States, through their use of TEDs during the shrimp fishing season, are saving 500 to 1,000 turtles each year. We are working on preparing other States for full-term TED compliance and certification, and through this effort more turtles will be saved.

I have often been asked what led to the TEDs success story. I think it can be attributed to a combination of factors, catalysed by the determination to do something, rather than just talk about the problem. Understanding that things had to be done in the local context; listening to local voices and taking on board the very real concerns of those who felt they were being impacted was crucial. Lastly, it was the knowledge that this programme was not going to be solved in a short one or two-year intervention and that the work would require sufficient funding. The Marine Research Foundation continues to work at it still as we have done since 2007 and are pleased to be able to share our practical experience with the wider ocean community through the RISE UP network.

Dr. Nicolas Pilcher is a British marine biologist based in Sabah(Malaysia), where he established and runs his own research and conservation agency –the Marine Research Foundation.

Nick has worked extensively on conservation projects in Malaysia, in the Middle East,and across the Indo-Pacific region, focusing his skillson saving endangered sea turtles, dugongs, sharks and rays, and other marine species. His specialty is in developing management-oriented solutions to conservationand working on reducing bycatch of endangered species, to which he brings 30 years of experience. Nick also works extensively with major industries to design and deliver solutions to environmental challenges they face. One of his flagship projects is introducing Turtle Excluder Devices to Malaysian trawl fisheries, which became a legal requirement in 2017. In recent years he has also studied impacts of climate change on sea turtles in the Arabian Gulf, tracked turtles across the Middle Eastern regionwith satellite tracking devices, and investigated turtle use and trade in part of Africa.

Nick served as the Co-Chair of the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group for 13 years, and currently is a Technical Advisor to the UNEP-CMS Dugong Secretariat and a memberofthe advisory boards of a number of international organisations.

In his spare time he is a husband, a father, diver, a boat captain, and even a small airplane pilot.

This is a guest blog and may not necessarily represent the views of other RISE UP network members or the RISE UP as a whole. It is only through open dialogue and a diversity of ideas that we will arrive at the solutions necessary to restore Ocean health.

Posted on Categories News Updates
Date Published: 31st March 2021