The Importance of Setting Baselines for Assessing the Direct Take of Turtles

Sea turtles have been traditionally hunted by Vezo tribesmen in southwestern Madagascar for centuries. © Garth Cripps

Sea turtles have been traditionally hunted by Vezo tribesmen in southwestern Madagascar for centuries. © Garth Cripps


The traditional turtle fishery in Madagascar is rooted in longstanding customs practiced by the Vezo coastal communities, and it represents thousands of turtles landed in southwest Madagascar since legislation was passed in the late 1980s. I have been studying the fishery since 2007, and while putting together the first estimates on the scale of the problem, I realized I could not really answer the following questions: Is this a lot of turtles by today’s standards? How many turtles currently are taken directly? How many used to be taken?

Baseline data on direct takes of turtles are vital for conservationists to measure their projects’ successes or failures and to help us avoid, or at least be aware of, shifting baselines, in which our perception of what is normal is influenced by what we have witnessed in our lifetimes. In addition, having baseline data enables us to assess the impact of management strategies, conservation programs, or new policies and allows us to say with confidence: this is working, we are winning.

As part of my doctorate degree program, I recently published an estimate of the current direct take of sea turtles from worldwide legal fisheries, a first attempt to comprehensively establish a baseline for such data. My coauthors and I estimated that current legal direct take stood at around 42,000 turtles per year, of which 80 percent were green turtles. Most of this number is spread around numerous small fisheries (< 1,000 turtles per year) throughout Caribbean and Pacific islands, with some larger fisheries in Papua New Guinea, Nicaragua, and Australia. We were also able to estimate that the legal take in these same countries had decreased by more than 60 percent in recent years.

This first estimate aims to provide conservationists and researchers with a number to work with and improve on. We know it is not perfect—much of the legal take is not regularly monitored, and data were not always easy to come by—but with this estimate we hope to take the first steps to achieve the following:

  • Establish a baseline for present-day legal direct take that can be updated as new data from recent projects become available.

  • Provide a way to assess relative threats to turtles, in particular direct take versus bycatch within fisheries.

  • Provide the starting point to measure future success in further reducing these threats to turtles.

The relative impacts of bycatch and direct take, both legal and illegal, are of particular interest to me. Because I work with some of the world’s poorest coastal communities in Madagascar, I find it hard to argue that a turtle should not be a source of protein and income, when I am lucky enough in the United Kingdom to have sources of protein that are not in jeopardy. Those sources might even rely on unfair fishing access agreements that plunder African waters and potentially contribute to the decline of the marine resources of the very same people I work with.

Trying to work with communities to promote turtle conservation is particularly challenging, especially where illegal takes are ongoing and legislation is deemed unfair for not taking into account local traditions (and is therefore deliberately ignored).

Therefore, I believe the next challenge is to better understand the recent trends of these illegal turtle fisheries and to focus on where they have decreased, what has worked, and why. Turning an illegal fishery into a legal one does not make the fishery disappear, nor the underlying threats or drivers of that fishery, even if passing legislation seems like a part of the solution.

Through much of my research on turtle take, it was clear how many conservation groups now make coastal communities the center of their sea turtle conservation projects. The article by Jennifer Cruce and John Rulmal Jr. on the Ulithi Marine Turtle Program (pp. 14–15) illustrates perfectly the importance of striking the right balance between protecting turtle populations and involving key local stakeholders. No threat to marine turtles is linked as inextricably to human attitudes, perceptions, and daily needs as direct take.

So I believe we are moving in the right direction, not only with legal direct take declining around the world, but also with the majority of legal direct take now taking into account both traditional fishing rights and the impact on sea turtle populations. I also believe we are winning because we understand now more than ever the importance of working with communities, not against them. They can be the most powerful allies and advocates for sea turtle conservation.