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Ecologically sustainable fishing communities and marine life can coexist and great community-level efforts are underway to maintain their livelihood, says Bryan Wallace, Senior Scientist with the Conservation Science Partners

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Every year, over 100,000 marine mammals die from the harmful effects of plastic fishing nets and trash in our oceans. Last month, Mexico’s Federal Agency for Environmental Protection announced that more than 300 olive ridley sea turtles had died after apparently becoming entangled in a fishing net. The animals were found floating together off the coast of southern state of Oaxaca, their shells cracked from more than a week of drying in the sun. The news comes just a few days after another 113 sea turtles, most of which were also olive ridleys, washed ashore in Mexico’s Chiapas state, approximately 100 miles east of Oaxaca. It is unclear in this latter case what killed the turtles, but some bore injuries consistent with those caused by hooks and nets.

Now, this was a report that we discovered here by reading an article in The National Geographic magazine. But it is also the topic of conversation in terms of how to curtail it. It’s a topic of policy setting. Now, the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California says that marine debris is the main cause of the death of these mammals; for example, birds, fish, crabs, turtles, dolphins. And thousands of marine mammals get caught in this deadly silent floating debris in what they call ‘ghost fishing.’

Joining me to talk about all of this and what’s happening to these marine mammals, and of course what we can do about it, is Bryan Wallace, a marine biologist who’s been studying sea turtles for almost 20 years. He’s a senior scientist with Conservation Science Partners and an adjunct professor at Duke University. Thank you so much for joining us, Bryan.

BRYAN WALLACE: Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Bryan, let’s start off with telling us what’s happening to the sea turtles and why.

BRYAN WALLACE: Right. So in this particular case, as you just described in the intro, what appears to have happened is that a large number of olive ridley sea turtles, which tend to concentrate in this time of year in that particular area off the coast of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, encountered what appears to have been a derelict piece of fishing gear; that is, a net that was operated by- actively by fishermen, but for one reason or another was lost at sea. And as you mentioned in the intro, the general term we have for such derelict gear, ghost nets in this case, sort of a macabre image. But although the net might be dead to fishermen; that is, not operated by them anymore directly, it continues to go on and do its job, and continues to fish in the ocean. And so it appears that because given the high concentration of animals that is olive ridley sea turtles in this area at that time of year, with this net indiscriminantly fishing on its own, we have what you saw, the fairly shocking images of hundreds of turtles being entangled and drowned.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Bryan, why does the fisherman just leave these nets out there? I mean, they are costly. A lot of fishermen are small-scale fishermen. They need these nets. Why are they there?

BRYAN WALLACE: That’s a fantastic question. I’m glad you asked. Those that become ghost nets that are, that is lost from the fishermen’s control, oftentimes it’s accidental, to be honest. You know, fishing in the ocean, as you can imagine, is extremely challenging logistically. You could have a pretty major storm that uproots the anchors holding the net in place. And from one, you know, from one almost moment to the next, the net could be where it was set, and then it could, and it could be gone. And once that happens, of course, it can be caught in currents and moved along pretty rapidly away from its original location.

So they’re not totally sure what happened in this very particular case, and why the net was lost in the first place. But chances are it has something to do with one of those kinds of, one of those kinds of issues. It’s really unfortunate. As you mentioned, fishermen don’t want to lose gear. It’s not only expensive, but many of these cases, especially in smal-scale fishing communities around the world, frankly, this is the primary source of livelihood for most folks. And so losing, losing a net is a significant blow. It’s not something that fishermen really want to have happen, and it’s really unfortunate all around when it does.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, last week, environmentalists celebrated a victory in Sacramento when California lawmakers overwhelmingly passed legislation to use- outlaw, basically outlaw drifting gill nets. And gill nets are mile-long nets blamed for intentionally killing thousands of sea creatures, including endangered animals. Now, I know this is not a solution to the problem out there in a wider scale. But do you think this is a good piece of legislation, and that it will address the problem?

BRYAN WALLACE: Yeah, I’ll admit I don’t know all the details of what was specifically passed. And so, you know, I’ll refrain from speaking too far out of turn on those on those kinds of things. Certainly where fishing gear, even when it’s designed or intended to catch specific things- in the case of the California drift net, that’s primarily swordfish. Just like an example we were talking about before, if that gear is operating in a time and a place where there are protected species- so off the coast of California, of course, is a, is a real hotspot even globally for concentrations of a lot of whale species, of sea turtles, again, seabirds, sharks, et cetera. You know, that gear can interact with species that it isn’t intended to.

And I think that the push behind this particular ban has to do with supporting even greater protections to those kinds of protected species that may be endangered for other reasons in the first place, and therefore vulnerable to further declines. This is a way of- the intention behind it would be a way of reducing further threats and hopefully providing a little more resilience for these populations.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, I understand that some 4,000 dolphins, 456 whales, 136 sea creatures have all died as far as, you know, keeping a tally on this stuff is concerned, because of gill nets. Now it’s good thing that California has done this. But this is a much wider problem worldwide, especially given that lots of small-scale fishermen and their communities rely on this kind of fishing and using, being able to use these nets to fish. Give us some other ways in which this could be regulated and addressed as a problem out there.

BRYAN WALLACE: Yeah. Thanks for that question. It’s a really important point you made there about how important and how pervasive net fisheries are globally, and how important they are to coastal communities around the world. So that’s making it, of course, a really challenging issue from an ecological and conservation perspective, as well as an, you know, an equity and resource access question. So extremely challenging, just at the outset there.

In terms of efforts to try to promote sustainability in these kinds of fisheries- and that is both for the fishermen and their communities, but then also for the broader ecosystem; species that they don’t intend to catch, like sea turtles or birds, or marine mammals. There are a lot of really great efforts out there at the community level to engage fishing communities, and trying to come up with solutions that make sense to allow them to continue to fish, hopefully more cleanly, and therefore to be able, you know, in fact to tout the higher value that they’re able to derive from what they’re actually catching because they’re also using ecologically more sustainable fishing practices.

And so there’s a, there’s a really interesting, really important movement, I think, that’s happening in a lot of places, where people are trying to essentially construct markets such that there is a higher demand, that places a higher price point or higher value on products from small-scale fisheries that are using these kinds of environmentally sounder, more ecologically sustainable practices. So it’s rewarding small-scale fishing communities for taking those extra steps.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Bryan, so much more to discuss, particularly the trash angle of this. We’ve been focused on the fishing nets. But I think that is something, you know, easily can be dealt with. I know California has tackled the issue of outlawing, you know, plastic bags and plastics, and that’s a good move. But it’s something obviously that the rest of the world needs to adopt, as well.

Bryan, thank you so much for joining us today and giving us a peek into the problem of trying to address the problem of these sea turtles showing up on our shores. And, and of course the disturbance it causes to mammal life. But I look forward to having you back, and we’ll continue talking about these things that seem, perhaps, minor, given the world at war and other things that are going on, and the environmental crisis we’re facing. But it is these small solutions that really will, I guess, end in a cumulative solution to the environmental crisis we are facing. I thank you so much.

BRYAN WALLACE: Thanks, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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Bryan coordinated LaúdOPO, an international network of researchers and managers working toward reversing the decline of critically endangered leatherback turtles in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. He currently leads the IUCN/SSC Marine Turtle Specialist Group for the Red List of Threatened Species, serves on the advisory panel for the New England Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund, and is Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University Marine Lab.