To Save the Sea Turtles: A Spanish Fishing Adventure - Oceana USA
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September 16, 2004

To Save the Sea Turtles: A Spanish Fishing Adventure

Hoisting the Oceana flag aboard shipRecently, I found out that Oceana Europe was planning a sea turtle bycatch expedition (turtles accidentally caught in fishing gear) and that they were headed out to sea on a Spanish pelagic longline boat with a film crew to document the problem and collect data. To those of you not as familiar with fishing, longline fishing is putting 20 miles of line and hooks with bait in the ocean to catch swordfish and tuna, etc. The boats leave port and stay out for 4 -6 days catching fish, 40 miles offshore or so, before coming back to land. I have been working on this issue for Oceana from Headquarters in DC, and the next think I knew, I was on my way to Spain to board a fishing boat, headed out into the Mediterranean Sea.

I have been fishing on several kinds of fishing boats before, but I had never gone out with a fishing boat for several days on end, sleeping, eating, etc, with the crew, especially a crew that did not speak English. The boat had 4 other crew members and a captain, along with Carlos, the Oceana expedition leader, based out of our European office, and Mar, a accomplished filmmaker.

I guess I should mention here that this was not a large boat. It was only about 50 feet long and let me tell you, in the middle of the Mediterranean, it did not seem large enough.

Caught swordfishSo, I was on the boat for 4 days and 3 nights. The conditions on the boat were less that ideal. Actually, to give you a clue, for the majority of the time I was on the boat, I was awake. The boat did not lend itself to sleeping, so I pulled my first all-nighter, actually staying awake for 36 hours (although not really by choice). Think fishing, no showers, foam rubber pads that everyone shares and blankets on the deck of the boat sitting in fish guts – and then imagine that they haven’t been washed in months. So, that really didn’t help. I won’t even begin to explain the no toilet and limited freshwater problem.

Anyway, the list goes on, but the good news is that it was an extremely important experience for me. I was very surprised that swordfish they caught were very small, and I mean really small — in fact, I was surprised that most of them met the legal limit. The fishermen were also catching turtles and Carlos and I had our dehooking devices and removed the fishing hooks and other gear — as well as measured and tagged the turtles before we released them.

But, by far the best thing about my trip was bringing the new circle fishing hooks to the fishermen. These hooks are a new idea by the U.S. and research shows that they reduce the number of turtles being caught by the gear – and since most of these turtles are on the Endangered Species List, this is a good thing. So, I brought some of these new hooks with me from the U.S.. When we first showed them to the crew, they said, “what animal do you use this on”… “You could never catch a swordfish with this hook.” So, their first reaction was far from overwhelming.

A hooked turtleBut then we came into port, and that night at the bar, the crew was divided over trying the new hooks. There was much arguing, but finally they decided to try them. So the next day on the boat, they attached my circle hooks to their fishing lines and put the hooks in the rotation to be baited and put in the water. I was very nervous, but near the end of the set, low and behold, up came a swordfish on a circle hook. Then when we got back to port, the owner of the boat met the captain and crew to check out the catch. The next thing I knew, the captain was showing the boat owner the circle hooks and showing him the fish he caught with them, etc. This was a huge step forward, especially with the Spanish fishery and it couldn’t have been more rewarding. Well, except for the fact that I was so tired, it was amazing I was still smiling.

So, stay tuned to our Web site to see the professional footage from the trip!