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It’s a Mystery Why Hundreds of Sea Turtles Are Dying – or Maybe Not

It’s a Mystery Why Hundreds of Sea Turtles Are Dying – or Maybe Not

Dozens of sea turtles, some with signs of concussions, have been washing up on the Pacific coasts of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, EL Salvador and elsewhere in Central America. Researchers in Costa Rica suspect that the culprit is seasonal red tides, which secrete a potent neurotoxin. But conservationists suspect the turtles may have gotten caught in trammels, large commercial fishing nets.

The turtles, some from endangered species and some still alive, are washing up in the hundreds on beaches in Central America. From late September to the middle of October, 114 sea turtles — black turtles (Chelonia agassizii), Olive Ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) and some that were a cross between the two — have been found on the beaches of El Salvador. 280 have been found so far this year in Costa Rica, 115 in Guatemala and an undisclosed number in Nicaragua. In late 2012, 200 were found dead on Panama’s beaches.

Nestor Herrera, the head of wildlife and ecosystems at the Salvadoran environment ministry, thinks that saxitoxin, which is produced by red tide and affects the nervous system, is a likely reason. Saxitoxin, he says, caused the death of about 500 sea turtles in El Salvador in 2006; dogs who ate dead turtles “stopped breathing and died almost instantly.”

As Angel Ibarra, coordinator of Ecological Unity of El Salvador, points out, a red tide occurs every year, yet such high number of turtle deaths have not been recorded.

Could Commercial Fishing Be Causing Turtle Deaths?

That’s one reason that conservation activists have been increasingly concerned that human activity could be a cause of the turtle deaths. Several dead turtles found near the Murciélago archipelago, in Costa Rica’s northwestern province of Guanacaste, were “attached to longline hooks, nylon strings and rope ,” Didiher Chacón, the director of the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Network (Widecast), tells the Tico Times. As he comments,

“It is not difficult to conclude that they were caught by longline fishing devices. Last week, we had reports of Mahi Mahi in the area, and behind them usually comes the longline fishing fleet.”

Hundreds of dead turtles were also found in Gulf Dulce, in the southern Pacific area of Costa Rica, in January of this year. Veterinarians who examined the dead turtles found that they had inflammation and that their respiratory systems were damaged, “leading them to determine the turtles had drowned after being snared in nylon fishing lines, which use several hooks and live bait.”

Guatemala’s National Council of Protected Areas also says that some turtles are being caught by industrial-size fishing boats. In a practice called trawling, these ships drag huge nets along the bottom of the sea floor that catch anything in their path. Equally hazardous for turtles is drill net fishing, in which long nets are pulled behind ships and near the water’s surface.

One biologist, Fabio Buitrago of Nicaragua’s Fundenic, a conservation organization, says that fishermen who use explosives have told him that these have been known to kill turtles.

Widecast and other conservationists say that the frightening number of sea turtle deaths is more than enough reason to push for sustainable fishing practices and to reduce bycatch in commercial fishing. Every year, bycatch fishing procedures end up netting some 30,000 sea turtles including endangered green sea turtles, says Widecast.

If human activity is even contributing to the deaths of sea turtles, it is imperative to minimize this as much as possible. The mortality rate for juvenile sea turtles is already extremely high. As Antonio Benavides, a turtle conservationist in El Salvador, underscores, only one out of the thousands of turtles that hatch from a nest ever returns to the beach it was born at to lay eggs.

On the other side of the world, almost 1,000 turtles were confiscated in a Thai airport last week; a Pakistani man has been arrested. All the turtles found – 470 black pond turtles, 423 radiata turtles and 52 Hamilton turtles — are endangered. Clearly we humans have a huge liking for turtles. Since we do, should we not be making every effort to preserve them and their habitats?


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12:30PM PST on Dec 1, 2013

Shut down the fishing industry. Shut down the trawlers.

7:21AM PST on Nov 18, 2013

Not good. There needs to be stronger laws of protection these creatures need, and I know it.

4:57PM PST on Nov 17, 2013


5:06AM PST on Nov 16, 2013

Another "people problem" ,not surprized ,only sadded

1:22PM PST on Nov 15, 2013

Why the human race is so cruel.

10:03AM PST on Nov 15, 2013

Our actions are killing the planet and every living being one by one. Ultimately, we are killing ourselves as well. I pray we can put an end to the destruction before it's too late. If not, we will have earned our fate. Thank you for the news.

4:54AM PST on Nov 15, 2013


3:12AM PST on Nov 15, 2013

Humans are causing the killing of aquatic animals and mammals. Also the radiation from Japan floating to the bottom of the ocean. Our oceans are polluted thanks to human interference and climate change.

8:13PM PST on Nov 14, 2013

Yeah because of our government we have to suffer, l just keep thinking of all the animals and the land that is been destroyed just so the rich mining companies get richer with their grubby(greedy) hands and no care what happens.

7:22PM PST on Nov 14, 2013

I was rather surprised to have read about the first known red tide being spotted back in 1793 and wonder what kind of history this tide has had throughout the centuries and if any records were kept of the fatalities back then as this has appeared in various parts of the world. They did not have the same scientific capacity to record such occurrences and I also wonder if any tides had shown up prior to 1793. Certainly the turtles and other affected wildlife that died can be tested for levels of Saxitoxin. Of course, back in those days there were certainly a lot more fish and turtles in the oceans in 1793.

Poorly regulated mass commercial fishing is a severe problem along with numerous other devastating environmental disasters over the years. The author did not go into detail about fishermen using explosives. One certainly has to question as to why anyone involved in commercial fishing would be using explosives.

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