The Star, January 21, 2015
BY TAN CHENG LI
Shrimp trawl nets must soon have turtle excluder devices.
Every year, thousands of turtles get trapped in fishing nets and eventually drown, as they cannot surface to breathe. One way to stop this turtle massacre is by fitting nets with a special device which provides the trapped turtle with an escape route. After years of trials and discussions, use of this gadget known as turtle excluder devices (TEDs) will soon become a reality in Malaysian fisheries.
By 2017, shrimp trawl fishermen in the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia will have to use TEDs in their operations during the monsoon, from November until March. The Fisheries Department will introduce a regulation requiring use of TEDs before fishermen can be issued permits for monsoon shrimp trawling, according to Syed Abdullah Syed Abdul Kadir, head of the Endangered Marine Species Research Centre in Rantau Abang, Terengganu.
He says the new rule will initially target east coast fishermen because of turtle populations in the seas there. The monsoon season is when shrimps are abundant and when shrimp trawlers get special permits to fish inshore, areas where turtles are usually found. (Outside of the monsoon season, fishermen can only trawl beyond five nautical miles from shore.) The TED ruling will eventually be implemented nation-wide.
Globally, incidental captures of sea turtles in fishing gear cause significant mortality of these animals. “Every year, some 30 to 40 turtle carcasses are found on beaches of the east coast. Based on the injuries, we conclude that the turtles were accidentally caught in fishing gear, a major one being trawl nets,” says Syed Abdullah.
A study by the Marine Research Foundation (MRF) in Sabah also found trawl fisheries to pose a serious threat to turtles. From interviews with 2,500 fishermen, the group estimated that some 3,000 turtles are caught in nets there annually.
“Turtle eggs are poached on all remote islands, and large adult turtles are poached by Chinese and Vietnamese fishing boats. Nesting sites are slowly lost to coastal development. But by far, the greatest threat to sea turtles in Malaysia is accidental capture in commercial and artisanal fisheries.
As shrimp trawl nets roll along the seabed, they also indiscriminately catch and drown numerous sea turtles,” says MRF executive director, Dr Nicolas Pilcher, whose organisation has been pushing for the use of TEDs since 2007.
TEDs have proven effective in eliminating unwanted bycatch such as endangered turtles, from trawl nets. The circular metal device has bars spaced no more than 10cm apart, and is attached to the narrow neck of trawl nets. Small animals such as fish and shrimps pass through the bars and are caught in the back end of the net while larger animals such as turtles which cannot get through the grid are pushed out through an opening in the net.
In many parts of the world, use of TEDs has led to fewer unintended capture of turtles in trawl fisheries. Pilcher says that in the Gulf of Mexico, the population of the highly endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles has rebounded after fishing fleets started using TEDs.
The turtle-friendly device has been made mandatory in some 30 countries. The United States even disallows imports of shrimp from countries which do not use TEDs or its equivalent. Nevertheless, fishermen in some US states still object to the use of TEDs. Likewise in Malaysia, uptake of TEDs has been slow despite numerous trials by the Fisheries Department and MRF.
Fishermen are wary of using the device as they fear that their target catch will also be lost through the turtle escape hole (which is covered by self-closing netting flaps) in the net.
“They have a perception that they’ll lose catch. There will always be variability in the daily haul ... the catch will go up some days, and down in others. But they will always blame any declines on TEDs,” says Pilcher.
In reality, trials conducted by MRF in Sandakan, Sabah, found that TEDs only resulted in small catch declines, and these should decrease when fishers get used to the device.
Better yet, TEDs have other side benefits. They improve catch quality as large objects such as logs and tyres are expelled and are not suck into the back of the net, where they can crush the catch. The reduction of debris in the net also reduces fuel consumption. The fuel savings and higher product quality can offset the small decline in catch.
“If installed and maintained properly, TEDs will not create loss in catch. There are different designs, sizes and materials. The idea is for the fishermen to experiment and find something suitable for themselves,” says Pilcher.
He started promoting the use of TEDs in Sandakan in 2007 as it is home to 1,500 trawlers and the waters there harbour large numbers of turtles. In 2009, he obtained grants to take four fishermen and two fisheries officials on a TED study tour in the United States, hosted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).
In 2010, he expanded the project to Kudat. Over the years, he has provided TEDs to fishermen to try out and organised workshops for them, and even gathered underwater footage to show that the turtle escape flap remains closed during trawls, so the targeted catch do not escape. Still, the voluntary adoption of TEDs in Sabah did not happen.
“I would spend a week going out to sea with the fishermen, and guide them on the use of TED,” says Pilcher. “But when I come back a week later, the TED would no longer be on the boat. It was time-consuming and I could only reach a handful of fishers willing to try the device, which they quickly remove when the trials were over.”
Johnny Wong, manager of Fook Soon Seafood Products in Kudat, says his boatmen have refused to use TEDs. “They say they will lose income as they will get less trash fish, which is sold to fertiliser companies. They fear they will be at a disadvantage as other vessels are not using the device. We need government rules. If not, TEDs will not be successful.”
Pilcher shares that sentiment. “The Government needs to come on-board and be the programme driver because without legal backing, TEDs just aren’t going to happen.”
With that in mind, in 2012, he took four fisheries officials to visit the NMFS to observe tests on TEDs with live turtles off the coast of Florida. The next year, Fisheries director-general Datuk Ahamad Sabki Mahmood went on a similar study tour and was immediately sold on the idea of TEDs. Soon after, a long-term implementation strategy for TEDs was drafted and it is now partly implemented.
“This is a proud moment for us at MRF, seeing the Government take ownership of the TED programme and include TEDs in fisheries legislation,” says Pilcher.
Following the study trips to Florida, Fisheries officials in Terengganu started conducting awareness-raising workshops for fishermen. Response was positive – they have even modified the TED design to prevent stingrays from escaping like the turtles (stingrays are a highly valued by-product in shrimp fisheries). The Malaysian innovation is dubbed the “smiley face” TED as it has a curved bar which forms a gap at the bottom of the circular device, thereby creating a passage for stingrays to swim to the back of the net and be caught.
Trials on the smiley face TEDs in Kemaman, Terengganu, dispelled concerns over the device causing lower catch. From the 38 trawls carried out by 14 vessels between November 2013 and February 2014, the total shrimp catch was higher by 14% when TEDs were used. For commercial fish, the catch was higher by 1% and for stingrays, 66%. Trash fish on the other hand, dropped 17% when nets were affixed with TEDs. The vessels also used less fuel and there was less damage to nets.
“The overall income of the fishermen is slightly higher by using TEDs because the catch is higher, while diesel consumption is significantly reduced. These two factors will enhance the income of fishermen who use TEDs,” says Syed Abdullah.
By March, another 14 fishermen will be provided with TEDs for continuance of the research funded by Huntsman-Tioxides, a company in Kemaman.
He adds that with funding from private companies and conservation groups, TEDs will be provided to all monsoon shrimp trawl fishermen in the east coast – about 1,300 of them.
“Fisheries Department will also conduct more studies to convince fishermen on the benefits of TEDs, which not only reduce sea turtle mortality but also conserve fishery resources as the catch of trash fish is reduced significantly. There will also be workshops and training for fishermen and Fisheries Department staff, including those in Sabah, to enhance knowledge on TEDs.”
Pilcher says from the experience of TED projects across the globe, several key ingredients are needed to drive the programme to fruition: fishermen’s participation in TED design, legal requirement for TED use, and incentives.
He says MRF will continue supporting the TED project in Malaysia as it has received US$150,000 from the UNDP-GEF Small Grants Project and has raised another US$50,000. It will fund demonstration workshops for fishermen in Terengganu, Kelantan, Pahang, Johor, Sabah and Sarawak, training for Fisheries staff, and whenever possible, distribute TEDs to fishermen. The devices cost about RM500 each.
“Eventually, there will be people familiar with TEDs and able to build, install and use them. Malaysia’s fleets are not yet all TED-equipped, but this is just a matter of time. State by state, port by port, TEDs will be introduced one boat at a time, and as this happens, the future of Malaysia’s turtle populations will be secured,” says Pilcher.