The green sea turtle, Chelonia mydas.
Credit: Proyecto Tamar
Fisherfolk to the Turtle Rescue!
By Fabiana Frayssinet*
A conservation campaign is motivating fisherfolk in southern Brazil to fight accidental capture of sea turtles.
FLORIANOPOLIS, Brazil, Mar 10 (Tierramérica).- It's 5am and the fisherfolk of the Brazilian village of Barra da Lagoa embark to see what the sea has left for them in their nets. Among the scant catch of the night, they don't find any sea turtles injured or agonizing in their traps.
In groups of six, aboard two colorful boats, the fishers head out to sea east of Florianopolis, capital of the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina.
Tierramérica accompanies them from another boat of the Tamar Project (Brazilian Program for the Conservation of Sea Turtles), carried out by the government's environmental institute, IBAMA, through the Brazilian Center for Protection and Research of Sea Turtles.
Tamar monitors eight nets, which accidentally trap some 25 sea turtles per year, veterinarian Eduardo Tadashi tells Tierramérica.
Of seven varieties of sea turtles, which are grouped into the families Cheloniidae and Dermochelyidae, five are found in Brazil, and all are on the IBAMA list of endangered species. Capturing sea turtles, which have existed on this planet for more than 150 million years, is banned in this country.
Tamar's mission in Florianopolis is to raise awareness among the local residents about the need to conserve the turtles, and to work with local fishing families to reduce accidental capture.
The turtles come to this area before reaching reproductive maturity (between ages 23 and 25) to feed, Eron Lima, a biologist who coordinates the Tamar project in southern Brazil, told Tierramérica.
The waters here are rich in the turtles' preferred foods: fish, crabs and seaweed. But along with this banquet the turtles also run into human dangers: nets and fishhooks, which can mean injury and even death.
Fisherman Josemar Teixeira tells Tierramérica that until a few years ago each time a turtle ended up in his nets it would be shared among everyone to eat.
But since the Tamar project began in 2005 on "the island" (as the capital of Florianopolis is referred to), that practice stopped "because we all know it is prohibited," he adds.
In good times, these small-scale fisherfolk earn slightly more than Brazil's monthly minimum wage (235 dollars). As such, it can be hard to set aside a food that is so tasty and so valued in their subsistence economy.
But now they not only avoid capturing and eating the turtles. According to Teixeira, they take the turtles they find to the Tamar headquarters where these giant reptiles are treated and then released back to the sea.
"Recently I grabbed a bigger turtle that was on top of a smaller one that could hardly breathe," he says.
The fisherman assures that nobody here kills turtles anymore, and that he sees more out at sea than he used to.
For the fisherfolk, accidentally trapping a turtle in their nets became a problem because it took time away from their efforts to catch the "jewel of the sea", the giant swordfish, which is highly prized on the market, selling at some 50 dollars per kilo, said Tamar coordinator Lima.
At the Tamar center in Barra da Lagoa, with several pools holding turtles hatched in captivity, Lima explained that the project is experimenting with new hooks to catch swordfish -- some 100 per spool -- which would cut down on the chances of harming sea turtles.
Unlike the traditional fishhooks, in the form of a "J" and with sharp points, the new hooks are more rounded and closed, making it difficult for a turtle to get caught on them, and if it were to occur, "it would reduce the impact of the injury," said the biologist.
In a year of tests with the new hooks, the turtles brought in by the fishers have suffered much lighter injury. The center rehabilitated 94 turtles in 2007. Lima is pleased that more and more people are participating in the effort.
Education is another achievement of the project, which receives some 40,000 visitors annually and also involves the states of Rio Grande do Sul, Espiritu Santo and Rio de Janeiro.
Tamar, sponsored by the Brazilian oil giant Petrobras, is also financed by the income generated by visits to the center (admission is a little more than a dollar) and the sales of T-shirts and other souvenirs.
* Fabiana Frayssinet is an IPS contributor.