Getting marine turtles off the hook in Central America | WWF

Getting marine turtles off the hook in Central America

Geographical location:

Latin America/Caribbean

Latin America/Caribbean > Central America > Costa Rica
Latin America/Caribbean > Central America > El Salvador
Latin America/Caribbean > Central America > Guatemala
Latin America/Caribbean > Central America > Mexico
Latin America/Caribbean > Central America > Nicaragua
Latin America/Caribbean > Central America > Panama
Latin America/Caribbean > LAC General
Latin America/Caribbean > South America > Colombia
Latin America/Caribbean > South America > Ecuador
Latin America/Caribbean > South America > Peru

Costa Rican observer trying a new dipnet. Costa Rica.
© WWF Central America / Alvaro Segura


Hundreds of thousands of marine turtles are accidentally caught and killed in fishing nets each year. In the eastern Pacific alone, leatherbacks have declined more than 90% in the last 20 years as a result of unsustainable fishing practices.

To protect these endangered species, WWF and its partners are encouraging local fishermen in a number of Central American countries to move from the “J” shaped hook, which can be snagged or swallowed by turtles, to a new circle hook, which turtles are much less likely to swallow and easier to unhook if caught. Such hooks reduce the capture of sea turtles by 70-90% and do not affect the catch of commercial fish species.


Bycatch of non-target species and juvenile target species is one of the most important problems fishing industry and managers are facing. Solving marine turtle bycatch in long-line fishing operations is a key challenge which can help save marine turtle species in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Populations of certain species are threatened with extinction. For example, populations of nesting leatherback turtles have decreased to record low numbers in Mexico and Costa Rica. Experts have predicted their disappearance from the Pacific by mid-century.

However, there are promising technologies which could help solve the problem of turtle bycatch. In particular, large circle hooks can reduce marine turtle bycatch by two thirds without adverse impact on target catch in some fisheries.

The Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) launched an initiative among its member states to run experiments on the replacement of j-hooks with circle hooks in long-lines of the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The initiative aimed to test by-catch reduction following 2 key principles: no one wants to kill turtles; no one wants to put fishermen out of work. WWF is a committed co-sponsor of this initiative and has provided funds, technical and administrative expertise toward its implementation, which relies on the voluntary participation of fishermen.

In addition to replacing J hooks with circle hooks, the project included testing experiments, the training of fishermen in best fishing practices - including proper on-board handling and resuscitation techniques for turtles caught by hooks or entangled in branch-lines - and on-board data collection by observers regarding catches and bycatches during long-line fishing operations.

This approach to fishing technology transformation proved successful and WWF and IATTC started building a database to compile scientific evidence to study marine turtle and long-line fisheries bycatch interactions and test circle hooks and other fishing gear modifications to save marine turtles. Results show that in almost all ports and fisheries circle hooks effectively reduce bycatch and produce a lower rate of ‘bad hookings’, hence increasing the potential survival rate of those turtles still caught in long-line fishing operations.

After 3 years, the programme has built up the largest bycatch network team and the largest artisanal fisheries conservation programme in Latin America.


- By 2011 reduce turtle bycatch rates in the Eastern Pacific longline fleets following 20% conversion of vessels from fleets of 9 countries to circle hooks and best fishing practices.

- Ensure systematic adoption of new gear and techniques on the part of individual fleets through regional programmes, until full penetration of regional fisheries is achieved. After this point, fisherman-to-fisherman transfer of best practice should ensure large scale adoption.

- Engage key regional gear suppliers to ensure that they make the latest, most efficient gear such as circle hooks, turtle release gear and turtle excluder devices widely available.

- Use the marketplace relationships to create complementary market signals for change.


Fishing vessels in 8 countries in Eastern Pacific Ocean are testing different types and sizes of circle hooks, following an experimental design that should provide statistical evidence on the effect of the hooks with regards to sea turtle hooking rates, target catch rates and location of hooking. A voluntary on-board observer programme collects valuable information to improve understanding of fishing operations and interactions with the turtles. Crew and captain are trained on the use of necessary instruments and techniques for appropriate release of incidentally caught sea turtles.


- The first round of experiments with the artisanal longline fleet of Ecuador was completed in 2004 and it has expanded to 7 other countries: Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Peru.

- A regional, multi-stakeholder alliance including industrial and artisinal fishermen, government agencies, NGOs, and regional management authorities is driving the up-take of best practices in long-lining and more than 4,000 fishermen have participated in training workshops. Nicaragua will be included in the near future and the programme will spread to more ports in each country.

- To date the programme has recruited 279 voluntary fishing vessels, and performed 918 experimental fishing trips, deploying over 1.5 million hooks in 4,178 long-line sets rigged with experimental designs. The approach has been to work with fishermen to find the solutions. The model shows real evidence of the benefits of gear substitution, and consists of educating and training fishermen in by-catch mitigation techniques, and the performance of voluntary fishing experiments, with onboard observers, to test circle hooks against J hooks. This model seems to fit fishermen’s cultural and social process of adopting new fishing practices and it is backed up by recognition and trust from fishers.

- The initiative, supported by a voluntary on-board observer programme, wants to scale-up the scope and activities of the programme based upon a rigorous documentation and dissemination proccess on the effect of the new fishing gear on target species and the reduction of turtle long-line bycatches. Ultimately, the observer programme is the platform to tackle issues of governance and fisheries management with the direct involvement of the fishermen.

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