updated 1/5/2004 2:19:58 PM ET 2004-01-05T19:19:58

A change in fishing technology — including hooks and bait — could sharply reduce the accidental catch of sea turtles, the National Marine Fisheries Service said Monday.

The agency said a three-year study has shown that using the new system can cut the catch of endangered loggerhead and leatherback turtles by between 65 percent and 90 percent.

Fisheries Service Director William Hogarth said the new system was developed with the cooperation of the longline fisheries industry and he called on other fishing nations to evaluate it for their use.

Longline fishing boats deploy long cables lined with baited hooks to attract popular such as swordfish, tuna and mahi mahi. The cables are periodically reeled in and the fish removed.

But the sea turtles also get caught on the lines, often drowning before they can be recovered and released.

Economic incentive seen
If fishermen decide to use the new system they not only benefit the turtles, agency officials said, but they have an economic incentive because they see an increase in the catch of intended fish, and they reduce the chance that areas where turtles congregate will be declared closed to fishing, such as the productive Grand Banks off Newfoundland.

“These new approaches we are announcing today are the answer we’ve all been waiting for,” Nelson Beideman, executive director of Bluewater Fisherman’s Association, a commercial longline group with 13 vessels participating in the project, said in a statement. “We are pleased to announce to the fishing world that we have successfully documented practical ways for pelagic longline fishermen to overwhelmingly reduce sea turtle interactions and also to substantially reduce harm from any remaining sea turtle interactions.”

The major change recommended by the fisheries service is to switch from the common J-shaped hook to a so-called circle hook, which is rounder, with a smaller opening, and to change from squid to mackerel for bait.

Elevator designed
Agency researchers also developed new de-hooking and release techniques to increase survival rates for turtles that are captured. Dehookers and dipnets allow fishermen to remove hooks from turtles with minimal additional trauma. A device used as a turtle elevator, the “leatherback lift,” was crafted to allow fishermen to bring larger turtles on board for de-hooking.

The findings were also endorsed by the World Wildlife Fund.

American fishing fleets are responsible for about 5 percent of overall sea turtle deaths, according to the fisheries service’s a part of the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Additional background is online at www.nmfs.noaa.gov/mediacenter/turtles.

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