The Sad Story of Thunderbird the Sea Turtle
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World Sea Turtle Day is celebrated on the 16the June of each year to highlight and raise awareness about marine turtles, and the threats they face. All over the world, sea turtles are increasingly threatened, with six of the seven sea turtles now listed as Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List. nature (IUCN).
The main threats are pollution, poaching and accidental or bycatch during fishing activities. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), bycatch is the main threat with around 300,000 marine turtles accidentally caught in global fisheries. This threat is espoused by the sad story of a loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) baptized Thunderbird.
In July 2020, Thunder bird was found entangled in abandoned fishing gear in the Mediterranean. The turtle was rescued and taken to a rescue center. He was fitted with a satellite beacon to track his movement and released. The researchers then followed the turtle from the Strait of Gibraltar to the west coast of Africa.
“We attached a satellite beacon before it was released on August 11, allowing us to follow its epic 6000 km journey through the western Mediterranean and the waters off West Africa. This turtle surprised us while crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, a difficult area due to its strong currents and high density of maritime traffic, which could lead to a high risk of boat collisions, “said David March of the universities. Exeter and Barcelona which participated in this follow-up.
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By February 2021, the Thunder bird was off Senegal however, his beacon signal became erratic with the final position on 17e March 2021, showing the turtle on land, near the port of Dakar. After verifying that the battery and beacon sensor were working properly, the last position was referenced with data from the Global Fishing Watch portal, which indicated that this position was near a fishing spot used by trawlers, indicating perhaps she had been accidentally captured by a fishing vessel.
“We found out that the last dive recorded by the satellite beacon was near a fishing spot used by trawlers. All of this suggests that the turtle was accidentally caught by a fishing boat and brought back to port. We don’t know. if Thunder bird was released alive after capture, or died as a result of bycatch, ”March adds.
Currently, researchers are using satellite data and working with partners in Senegal to find the boat that captured the turtle, hoping to gain more information on the fate of Thunderbird.
West Africa is one of the richest fishing grounds in the world, with the region providing a fifth of the world’s fish catch, and inevitably a lot of bycatch. Since 2017, BirdLife International in collaboration with national and international partners aimed to establish an operational framework to reduce incidental catches of marine turtles in industrial fisheries in West Africa. The MAVA Foundation-funded project is based on five key pillars, namely strengthening scientific research and capacity, strengthening observer programs, advocacy for legislation and mitigation measures, awareness raising and awareness raising. of the public, in addition to sustainability and partnerships.
“There are a lot of unregulated and / or unsustainable fishing activities off West Africa, and we are working with local partners and fishing companies to adapt fishing gear and methods to minimize marine turtle bycatch, ”noted Ahmed Diame, Bycatch Project Manager, BirdLife Africa.
“We also identify the main fishing hot spots, such as the area where Thunder bird was caught. With the information collected by observers on board industrial fishing vessels and the monitoring data of marine turtles, we will be able to identify the main areas and periods at risk for species accidentally caught during fishing activities ”, adds Diame.
Understanding the spatial and temporal impacts of different types of fishing on marine turtle populations is crucial for implementing sustainable conservation strategies. As a result, the project provided a better understanding of the extent of bycatch occurrences in West Africa.
A key element of the project is capacity building by carrying out training for fisheries observers. These trainings provide observers with skills on marine turtle identification, best sea turtle handling practices, marine turtle bycatch mitigation techniques, and bycatch data collection protocols. From May 31st to 04 Junee 2021, the team organized a regional training in Somone, Senegal, attended by 13 fishery observers and bycatch data managers from Mauritania, Gambia, Cabo Verde, Guinea, Guinea Bissau and Sierra Leone. The training was part of the effort to establish a network of national trainers in the different countries involved.
“These conservation interventions will be instrumental in helping to conserve sea turtles. As we mark World Sea Turtle Day, we must act quickly to save these majestic creatures that are under threat, ”concludes Diame.
Thunderbird was tagged as part of ‘Oceanographic Turtles’, a joint program of the Balearic Islands Coastal Observation and Forecasting System (SOCIB), Alnitak, Palma Aquarium Foundation and the University of Exeter, with support from NOAA NMFS. Learn more about Thunderbird’s journey here