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Sea turtles are iconic. They have the power to melt young hearts, intrigue scientists and mesmerise and impress the public. In Malaysia, the story is no different: sea turtles adorn tour buses, they are in just about every tourism brochure, they are on television adverts and in prime- time documentaries. They are featured in comic strips and on postage stamps. They are protected by more laws than in any other country in the world, as each state affords them protection over and above that provided by national legislation.

But they can hardly be considered ‘safe’, as a number of foreign and domestic pressures threaten their very existence. Possibly the only remaining stronghold is in the Malaysian state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. And yet, while Sabah’s turtles are currently abundant, they face some exceptional challenges. Eggs are poached on all remote islands. Large adult turtles are caught by overseas fishing boats. Nesting sites are being lost to coastal development.

DSC_1078But the greatest threat to sea turtles in Malaysia is accidental capture in commercial and artisanal fisheries. Sea turtles have the unfortunate legacy of sharing habitats with some of our favourite foods, and of all the threats to their existence, the shrimp industry is perhaps the biggest. As shrimp trawl nets roll along the seabed they indiscriminately catch and drown numerous sea turtles.

The conservation outlook for turtles has slowly improved thanks to small management changes at national parks, but the threat posed by thousands of shrimp trawlers has remained paramount. And yet a very practical and inexpensive solution exists in the form of Turtle Excluder Devices (or TEDs), which are fixed within a trawl net and allow a fisherman’s catch to be retained while turtles are excluded.

A TED is usually an oval frame with vertical bars set at precise spacing that allows shrimp and fish to pass through to the cod end, at the back of the net, while turtles and other large objects are forced out through an opening covered by a net flap. TEDs improve the quality of the catch, as large objects such as logs and large animals do not crush it, and the reduction of debris in the back of the net saves fuel, which is a benefit to fishers.

IMG_8501Although TEDs have many advantages, fishers are often wary of using them because of the large exit ‘trapdoor’ in the net that allows turtles and debris to escape. They are concerned that their target catch will be lost through this opening, even though self-closing netting flaps cover it. In numerous trials across the world, however – and more recently through MRF’s work in Malaysia – we have found that the TEDs rarely cause a decline in catches.

In 2007 MRF initiated a small pilot project using TEDs in Sandakan, a coastal city that is near the Turtle Islands Park (where thousands of turtles nest each year) and which hosts more than 1,500 trawlers. TEDs slowly gained acceptance among a small group of fishers, and the programme was under way.

We created a short documentary video to document how TEDs worked. We took six fishermen on a study tour in the US, hosted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). We expanded the project to a second port in Sabah, where we used GoPro cameras on the nets to prove to fishermen that the flap was indeed closed and that turtles were being saved nearly every day. We convened a state-level workshop to spread the word far and wide.

But the truth was that the voluntary adoption process was not working as well as we would have liked. It was time-consuming and fishers quickly removed the TEDs when the trials were over.

IMG_2069The next step was to take government officials to visit the NMFS in the US while TEDs were being tested with live turtles off the coast of Florida. The officials came back and made a case for TEDs with upper management. Six months later the director-general and MRF’s Executive Director were on their way to Florida, accompanied by one of the government officers who had attended the previous year, where they submitted a Malaysia-designed TED to the NMFS for rigorous testing. It performed as expected, and every turtle escaped in less than one minute. The NMFS certified the new TED for use in fishing fleets world- wide, while back in Malaysia the performance of the home-designed TED drove the acceptance process further.

Today there is a National Steering Committee tasked with developing and implementing a long-term strategy. As the government embarks on the nationwide programme, MRF has been asked to be the technical advisor to the committee and the Department of Fisheries on matters related to bycatch of turtles and other species.

This long-term project has benefitted from the generosity of many donors, but in particular the project was catalyzed by grants from Malaysia’s GEF Small Grants Programme and Conservation International Philippines. Since then it has received incredible financial support also from the US National Marine Fisheries Programme (both the Pacific Regional Fisheries Office and the Office of International Affairs), and the Save our Seas Foundation.

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