Mexico City, Mexico
Conservation groups fear that the number of endangered North Pacific loggerhead sea turtles being caught and drowned in fishing nets off the coast of Mexico may this year reach the alarming numbers registered in 2012, when scientists recorded a 600% jump over the average for earlier years.
The problem threatens to generate a trade dispute between Mexico and the United States. In January, the U.S. Department of Commerce began a two-year process to determine whether Mexican regulations governing fisheries are comparable to those in the United States, where extensive rules are in place to protect loggerheads. If it determines that the rules are less exacting, then the law allows Washington to impose trade sanctions on Mexican exports.
The North Pacific loggerhead turtles hatch in Japan and cross the ocean to forage off Baja California, where the waters are rich in pelagic red crab, squid and sardines. After several years they return to Japan to reproduce.
But in the Gulf of Ulloa, on the Pacific coast of Baja California Sur, they fall victim to gillnets and longlines set by fleets targeting shark, sole and grouper. In 2003, scientists began counting the turtles that washed up every year and joined nongovernmental groups and fisher- men in developing fishing techniques aimed at reducing the turtle bycatch. Deaths fell from 450 a year before 2007 to 150 a year between 2007 and 2011, says Juan Carlos CantuÌ, manager of Mexico programs for Defenders of Wildlife, a U.S.-based conservation group.
Last year, though, the number of dead log- gerheads spiked alarmingly, with 480 carcasses recorded on Gulf of Ulloa beaches in July and August alone, and an estimated 1,015 deaths for the whole year. In early September of this year, authorities reported 705 dead turtles had been found on the beaches since Jan. 1. Scientists estimate Pacific coast turtles that wash up in Baja represent only 15% or 20% of all those that die in nets. By comparison, the Hawaiian longline fishing fleet has an observer on every boat, and if 34 turtles are caught, the fishery is closed for the rest of the calendar year.
CantuÌ attributes last year’s spike to a Mex- ican government ban on shark fishing during the summer months. The ban, he says, prompted many fishermen to make up for the lost income by catching more fish. In the process, they abandoned techniques that they had been using to avoid bycatch—for instance, keeping away from areas frequented by sea turtles.
Although Mexico has failed to take sig- nificant action to protect loggerheads, such as setting up a refuge or introducing regulations, Mexican government agencies have long acknowledged that bycatch is a significant threat to the turtles’ survival. To the surprise of conservation groups, however, the 11-month-old administration of Mexican President Enrique PenÌa Nieto has adopted a different, more skeptical stance. “[The government] has cast doubt on all the reports, but there is overwhelming evidence,” says Alejandro Olivera, northwest Mexico coordinator for the Mexi- can Center for Environmental Law (CEMDA), a green group here. “There is pressure from the fishing industry,” he adds, concluding that the government is reluctant to challenge the fleets.
On a website about loggerheads, Mexico’s National Commission for Protected Natural Areas (Conanp) cites research identifying small-scale fishing as the prime cause of turtle deaths, but adds: “[R]ecently other actors ... have mentioned the possibility that this mortality is magnified” by “oceanographic agents, illnesses or other environmental factors.” Says CantuÌ: “They don’t want to be seen by the United States to be admitting to this problem.”
Sarah Uhlemann of the U.S.-based Center for Biological Diversity agrees: “Mexico’s response despite a decade of scientific evi- dence is shocking. It’s desperate.” The Center, along with the Turtle Island Restoration Network, has asked the U.S. Department of Commerce to certify that Mexico is not protecting sea turtles and to press Mexico’s government to stiffen regulations or face trade sanctions.
Sea-turtle mortality also has caught the attention of Mexico’s Congress, which passed a non-binding resolution in August asking Conanp to consider creating a turtle refuge in part of the Gulf of Ulloa and developing a management plan for the area with the National Aquaculture and Fishing Commission (Conapesca). In reply, Conapesca cited a study published this year that noted only 1.8% of the carcasses that had washed up on the Gulf of Ulloa beaches showed clear signs of injuries caused by nets or hooks. It did not highlight the article’s conclusion, that “indirect evidence, however, points towards artisanal coastal fisheries as the main source of mortality.”
Federal officials have ordered a new study based on postmortem examination of the decomposing carcasses that wash ashore. Oli- vera says that since there is usually little physi- cal evidence to prove turtles were caught and drowned in nets, “[t]he methodology is directed and distorted by the government itself.” He adds: “They are just trying to buy time.”
Juan Carlos CantuÌ
Director of Programs Defenders of Wildlife of Mexico Mexico City, Mexico Tel: +(52 55) 5596-2108 firstname.lastname@example.org
Coordinator for Public Policy Mexican Center for Environmental Law (CEMDA) La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico
Tel: +(52 612) 165 5091
Center for Biological Diversity Seattle, Washington
Tel: +(206) 324-2344 email@example.com
Documents & Resources
Document from Conanp (National Commission for Protected Natural Areas) www.bit.ly/conanpdoc
“Estimating At-Sea Mortality of Marine Turtles from Stranding Frequencies and Drifter Experiments,” PLOS ONE, Feb. 20, 2013, by Volker Koch, Hoyt Peckham, Agnese Mancini, Tomoharu Eguchi www.bit.ly/plosonearticle
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