Working with lobster gillnet fishers to reduce hawksbill bycatch and mortality
Lobster gillnet fisheries have been identified as a primary threat to hawksbills in the eastern Pacific. Given that these fisheries operate almost exclusively in nearshore areas, the neritic home ranges and coastal migration paths of hawksbills increase the likelihood of potential bycatch interactions. In 2011 ICAPO began a study to identify important hawksbill habitat within the Gulf of Fonseca, a large at-sea inlet located between the nesting sites in the Bahia Jiquilisco (El Salvador) and Estero Padre Ramos (Nicaragua) and under joint jurisdiction of the countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. Extensive interview surveys led to reports of high hawksbill bycatch in lobster gillnet fisheries operating out of El Maculis in El Salvador and La Salvia in Nicaragua. Based on interview results, in late 2012 ICAPO began spearheading fisheries observations at these two sites, leading to the highest hawksbill bycatch rates recorded to date in the EP Ocean. Exacerbating the negative impacts of these fisheries is the fact that we observed only a small percentage of the entire lobster gillnetting fleet. As such, lobster fisheries at these sites represent a primary threat to the population.
In 2013 and 2014, ICAPO tested lobster traps as a potential sustainable alternative to lobster gillnets. However, after using various trap models, bait types and trap fishing locations, it was found that traps were not a viable alternative to gillnets (i.e., traps were ineffective at capturing lobster). Considering the catastrophically high bycatch and mortality of hawksbills that continues to occur in these fisheries, additional efforts to identify gear-types that will reduce hawksbill bycatch rates and protect hawksbill hotspots are fundamental to the recovery of the population in the EP.
The project is currently increasing research and data collection to include information to characterize these fisheries, including non-sea turtle bycatch (species, quantities, sizes, etc.), percentage of time dedicated to fishing lobster versus other target species (e.g., finfish), additional gear types used and fleet size. These data are essential to understanding fishery dynamics and developing potential solutions to hawksbill bycatch. A more thorough understanding of the fishery will also allow for evaluations of ecosystem solutions, with implications for lobster fisheries in other ocean regions.
ICAPO has also spearheaded conversations about potentially creating a marine protected area in front of El Maculis at a particular site known as “Poza de la Gata”. The marine substrate in this area consists of large rock outcrops and caves, where hawksbills can be found both foraging and resting (Dominguez et al. 2010). There have been numerous hawksbills killed via bycatch in the aforementioned lobster gillnet fisheries this area. However, while lobster gillnet fishers tend gear in this area, it is not one of the primary fishing sites and several local fisher leaders have expressed interest in deeming the area “off limits” to gillnet fishing activities. As such, ICAPO has a strong interest in exploring the possibility of creating a marine protected area (MPA) at the site.
Current project activities include 1) Testing gillnets equipped with light emitting diodes (LEDs) to evaluate their effectiveness in reducing hawksbill (and non-target species) bycatch, as well as maintain or increase target species (lobster) capture rates; 2) conducting year-round observations to document and track temporal and spatial aspects of hawksbill bycatch; 3) carrying out an in-depth characterization of lobster gillnet fisheries at these sites; and 4) working with local stakeholders to evaluate the feasibility of establishing an MPA that would offer permanent protection of Poza de la Gata. For the latter, we have partnered with FUNZEL and are seeking to engage government entities and outline the legal processes necessary for official declaration of an MPA at the site. For the LED trials and lobster fisheries characterizations we have teamed up with experts from NOAA’s Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center, who have previous experience supervising similar evaluations of finfish fisheries in Mexico, Peru and abroad.
- Implement alternative gear trials in search of equipment that will reduce or eliminate bycatch of hawksbills and other non-target organisms.
- Document bycatch and mortality of hawksbill turtles at this critical foraging ground.
- Gain a comprehensive understanding of these lobster gillnet fisheries to aid in identifying bycatch solutions.
- Advance efforts to create a marine protected area in Poza de la Gata.