Bycatch is a Serious Threat
Sea turtles are a key part of marine ecosystems worldwide and play a vital role in supporting productive oceans. They help maintain coral reef ecosystems and transport essential nutrients from the oceans to beaches and coastal dunes. Sea turtles are an essential part of their environment, and they influence other species around them.
The greatest threats to sea turtles are caused by humans. Sea turtles can become trapped, hooked, or entangled in fishing gear, most commonly in trawls, longlines, and gillnets. This is called bycatch and is the greatest threat to sea turtles in the United States. Bycatch can harm animals, contributing to population declines and impeding population recovery. Bycatch is a complex, global issue that threatens the sustainability and resiliency of our fishing communities, economies, and ocean ecosystems.
An immature loggerhead sea turtle. Credit: G.P. Schmahl.
Conservation Successes through the Endangered Species Act
NOAA Fisheries leads the conservation and recovery of sea turtles in the marine environment. There are seven species of sea turtles in the world. Six of them live in U.S. waters: green turtle, hawksbill turtle, Kemp's ridley turtle, leatherback turtle, loggerhead turtle, and olive ridley turtle.
All sea turtles found in U.S. waters are listed under the Endangered Species Act as either threatened or endangered. The Act protects more than 160 marine and anadromous species and has been overwhelmingly successful in preventing their extinction during the last 50 years. The Act has also put many species on the path to recovery.
Learn about actions and requirements we’ve implemented to minimize bycatch, ensuring our fisheries are sustainable and sea turtle species are given the best chance to recover.
Turtle Excluder Devices
By the late 1970s, incidental bycatch of sea turtles in shrimp trawling gear in the southeastern United States was determined to be a major threat to the survival of sea turtle populations.
In the Southeast United States, Northwestern Atlantic, and Gulf of Mexico, we have worked closely with the trawl fishing industry to develop turtle excluder devices. Sea turtles can get caught in shrimp trawl gear, and they can drown if they can’t escape. These devices help sea turtles escape from shrimp trawl gear, while still allowing shrimp catch. Modern designs are 97 percent effective in excluding sea turtles from shrimp trawls.
They have helped sea turtle population recovery, especially for Kemp's ridley. Kemp’s ridley were once abundant in the Gulf of Mexico with tens of thousands of females nesting at Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. The population crashed in the mid-20th century to a low of only several hundred nests in the 1980s. These intensive conservation actions helped populations rebound to an average of more than 16,000 nests per year over the last decade.
The shrimp fishery once faced severe restrictions and closures to protect endangered sea turtles. It has continued to operate and thrive while simultaneously saving the lives of sea turtles by using TEDs!
Sea turtle escaping a net equipped with turtle excluder device. Credit: NOAA Fisheries
Less Harmful Hooks and Fishing Methods
Fishermen use certain types of fishing gear to target specific species. However, these different fishing methods can accidentally capture or injure other non-target species. We work with the fishing industry and other partners to develop or modify fishing gear and practices to minimize bycatch of protected species and reduce the mortality rate for marine life that is incidentally caught.
Current bycatch reduction measures include the use of circle hooks. Their shape and smaller opening reduce the likelihood of turtles ingesting hooks or being caught. When hookings do occur, they are likely to be less severe, allowing a safer release.
Safe Handling and Release Guidelines
Sea turtles can be injured or killed as a result of being mishandled when caught. NOAA Fisheries has identified ways to reduce the stress for hook-and-line caught and released sea turtles. These measures can increase their chance of survival.
Vessels with commercial and for-hire reef fish and snapper-grouper permits are required to have the proper sea turtle release gear in accordance with their vessel freeboard height. They must have onboard a copy of the most recent release protocols (PDF, 74 pages) and sea turtle handling and release guidelines (PDF, 1 page).
Leatherback sea turtle. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.
Gulf Reef Fish Bottom Longline Time Area Closures
Many sea turtles feed along the bottom and can become entangled in branch lines or may be attracted to light sticks attached near baited hooks. A hook can penetrate the turtle's flippers, head, mouth, or neck. If swallowed, an entire hook can become lodged in the turtle's digestive tract, hindering feeding and digestion and possibly leading to starvation or death. Line entanglements can cause constriction of the lines on the turtle's soft body parts leading to severe lacerations and infections. Turtles entangled or hooked at depth likely drown because they cannot reach the surface to breathe.
NOAA Fisheries implemented regulations in 2005 to reduce bycatch in bottom longlines by requiring closures of certain fishing areas at times large numbers of turtles are likely to be in those areas.
Sea turtles are highly migratory, and no single country can protect them alone. We work with other countries to promote sea turtle conservation internationally and to mitigate sea turtle bycatch in commercial and recreational fisheries. NOAA Fisheries carries out domestic and international conservation activities for sea turtles in the marine environment.
In 1989, legislation required the Department of State, in consultation with the Department of Commerce, to negotiate with foreign nations to develop agreements for sea turtle conservation. Much of the emphasis of this work involves countries whose commercial fishing fleets adversely affect sea turtles. The law also banned most imports of commercially harvested shrimp. Exporting countries certified by the State Department as having a regulatory program comparable to that of the United States for reducing the incidental capture of sea turtles in shrimp trawls are exempt from the ban. This certification must be completed annually in order to export shrimp to the United States.
International Implementation of Turtle Excluder Devices
Since the early 1990s, the Department of State and NOAA Fisheries have helped countries develop their own turtle excluder device regulations and enforcement programs. Through workshops and regular inspection visits, we work with fishermen around the world to adopt and use the devices. Today, 40 countries are certified as having comparable sea turtle bycatch rates to the United States.
Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles
NOAA Fisheries supports the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles. This intergovernmental treaty provides the legal framework for countries in the Americas and the Caribbean to take action for the benefit of sea turtles. These actions are based on the best available data and the environmental, socioeconomic, and cultural characteristics of the Convention’s parties.