Was Stephanie Caught by Fishermen?

George Shillinger in Monterey, CA. -- Did commercial fishermen or shark-finners off the Galapagos or Peru accidentally kill Stephanie, Windy, Drexelina or Champira?

One of the divas of the Great Turtle Race, Stephanie Colburtle, hasn’t sent us a message for more than 100 days. We’re a little concerned about her and three other turtles: Windy, Champira and Drexelina. The other seven turtles are well on their way to their distant feeding grounds off Peru and Chile. This week, we’re looking at all the possibilities of what could have happened to the missing turtles. [Click here to read this series of blog posts in Spanish.] Here's Windy's track and last known position:

Alex Hearn, a researcher in the Department of Marine Research & Conservation at the Charles Darwin Foundation on the Galapagos Islands, believes that it’s a possibility that the turtles were caught by commercial fishermen.

“The waters around the Galapagos Marine Reserve are very productive,” he notes, “especially to the west of the archipelago where the upwelling Cromwell Current hits the islands. Industrial fishing is forbidden within the reserve, which extends from the baseline around the main islands to 40 nautical miles in all directions.

“But there are cases of large fishing vessels making illegal incursions into the reserve. Several have been detained this year, so it is possible that the turtle was taken by one of these. Most are longliners.”



The research station did a study in 2003 to determine if small-scale longlining of yellowfin tuna and swordfish – the two most popular fisheries -- should be permitted in the reserve. In longline fishing, miles of line with hundreds of baited hooks are put out in the morning, then reeled in at night. Here's what these hooks look like before they're baited and put into the water.


The researchers found the following:

-- Forty percent of the overall catch was by-catch, most of which (34 percent) were sharks.
-- At least one leatherback and 10 species of sharks were captured, including 242 blue sharks, 184 silky and Galapagos sharks, and 41 hammerheads.

As a result, a decision was made to ban longlining in Galapagos waters.

Peruvian turtle researcher Joanna Alfaro-Shigueto, along with TOPP researcher Peter Dutton (who’s with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, CA), participated in a study that was published this year in “Chelonian Conservation and Biology”, a journal that specializes in turtle research. Although the capture of leatherbacks has been prohibited in Peru since 1976, non-commercial fishermen tend to keep the leatherbacks that they catch by accident. The researchers gathered data on 33 accidentally caught leatherbacks from 1985 to 1999 on Peru’s coast. From 2000 to 2003, a dockside observer program provided data on another 133 leatherbacks caught in the coastal gillnet and longline fisheries targeting mahi mahi, sharks, and rays.

Their results showed that poor people living in coastal communities rely on marine animals, including leatherbacks, as a food source -- 58.6% of the leatherbacks caught were eaten. “The increasingly clandestine nature of this take makes monitoring and sampling difficult,” note the researchers. “The number of turtle landings reported during this period should therefore be considered as a

And here’s the scary part for our leatherbacks: “Bycatch in the large-scale commercial fisheries operated by international and national fleets based in Peru that fish offshore waters remains unmonitored and unknown.”

In case you didn't catch the news today: the IUCN issued the latest update of its Red List, the list of threatened species. Our leatherbacks are among the endangered. In the analysis of the leatherbacks, researchers estimate that 70 percent of adult females have disappeared in just one generation. And in the Pacific, 30 percent of the nesting female leatherbacks die every year.

So that's why we worry about just our four. Here's Drexelina's track and her last known position.