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No word on turtle deaths

February 1, 2013

The cause of death of more than 290 turtles in Costa Rica’s southern Pacific remains unconfirmed this week by veterinarians at the National University. While test results are expected next week, environmental organizations across the country are placing the blame on longline fishing, and the fishhooks and lines found in a number of the turtles’ bodies.

“There is no doubt that fishing was involved,” said Randall Arauz, president of the Marine Turtle Restoration Program, or Pretoma. “There are turtles with fishhooks in their mouths.”

Last week, hundreds of olive ridley turtles, green turtles, marlin and sailfish washed ashore along 10 kilometers of coast between Punta Banco and Playa Pavones, in the Southern Zone. 

Since then, several photos and videos of turtles caught in nets and snared by hooks have surfaced from environmental groups, who claim that this is not the only evidence of fishing interference. 

The Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Network (WIDECAST), another turtle conservation group, did their own preliminary tests. They found foaming mucus in the tracheas of the turtles. Other veterinarians in the network agreed that the probable cause was drowning. 

“All of this evidence is pointing to fishing as the cause,” said Didiher Chacón, WIDECAST’s Latin America director. “We are waiting on the official results, but everything fits.”

Both the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca), and the newly formed Vice Ministry of Waters and Oceans acknowledged fishing as a possible cause of death, but officials are waiting for results before taking any kind of action. 

Incopesca President Luis Dobles named disease, red tide and water contamination in his list of suspicions, and put the number of dead turtles closer to 100, rejecting the reports from WIDECAST. 

“Not all of the turtles had hooks in them,” Dobles said. “We just don’t think that could be the only cause. Turtles have no commercial value in this country, fisherman have no reason to catch them other than by accident.”

The accidental capture of turtles, called bycatch, is a common problem with long-line and live-bait fishing techniques. Turtles and other unwanted species caught on the longlines’ hooks are thrown back into the ocean. 

Environmental groups released a joint statement last week calling for a change in fishing policies in the Golfo Dulce, off the southern Pacific coast. 

“It is not possible for these things to keep happening in our country without the authorities taking any action,” said Jorge Jiménez, director of MarViva, an environmental group. 

For Arauz, the regulation of long-line fishing is key in cutting down on these types of incidents. Pretoma is calling for the complete ban of live-bait fishing and further restrictions on longliners.

“We propose that longlines should target mahi mahi five months out of the year,” he said. “We can live with longline fishing but it needs to be strictly regulated.”

According to Dobles, the regulations in place are already well within international standards.

“The environmentalists asking for this regulation are looking at it from a very simple viewpoint,” Dobles said. “There are many countries with much looser laws than Costa Rica.”

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