Endangered and threatened sea turtles could benefit from a network of
protected and linked swimways that would provide safe passage through
migratory, nesting, developmental and foraging habitat around the
world. International conservation groups are calling for 20% of the
world's oceans to be protected in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to
preserve fisheries and marine biodiversity (National Research Council,
1998). Creating "international parks" that are free from human
pressures—industrial fishing in particular—could help provide global
protection for sea turtles. Such parks or reserves would benefit other
marine life by offering undisturbed areas that will help maintain our
Turtle Excluder Devices have not proven to be a complete solution for
protecting endangered sea turtles from shrimp fishing. Even after
TEDs were implemented in the U. S., sea turtle mortality continues
during shrimp fishing. Many shrimp fleets of the world still do not use
TEDs. And U. S. TEDs laws are being eroded by global trade treaties.
Longline fishing is clearly another threat to sea turtle populations.
Other types of commercial fishing activities also cause sea turtle
Most of our important sea turtle nesting beaches now possess a high
level of protection, and monitoring and trade in sea turtle products is
illegal. Yet, sea turtles still remain vulnerable to extinction.
New approaches that go beyond beach protection and fishing regulations
are needed to protect sea turtles in their ocean habitat and assure
their survival for the next thousand years and more. A global network
of protected swimways closed to commercial fishing established through
linked Marine Protected Areas could achieve this while providing
benefits to fisheries, other marine life, coastal communities and
What Is A Marine Protected Area?
A Marine Protected Area is defined by the IUCN as "any area of
intertidal or subtidal terrain together with overlying waters and
associated flora and fauna, and historical and cultural features that
have been reserved by law or other effective means to protect all or
part of the enclosed environment."
The IUCN defines six different categories of MPAs, depending on level
of protection (IUCN, 1994). Currently, no standard MPA definition
exists. Hundreds of MPAs have been established in many countries around
the world using a variety of terms such as marine reserve, marine
sanctuary, and ecological reserve (MPA News, 2000). Some allow no human
activity at all, while others restrict fishing only, and still others
permit all activities except a very specific activity like oil
exploration or dumping.
For example, the U. S. National Marine Sanctuary Program has
established 13 marine sanctuaries. However, these sanctuaries provide a
low-level of protection for marine life because all activities
including commercial fishing are allowed. Only oil exploration is
In contrast, the 16 marine reserves established in New Zealand during
the past 35 years are all no-take zones (Ballantine, 1999). Swimming,
boating and diving are allowed, but no fishing or other extractive
Marine protected areas have been created in many ways by many different agencies.
In Florida, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Council approved a no-take
marine reserve to protect gag grouper, a long-lived sedentary fin-fish
species. A large no-take marine reserve is currently being proposed for
the Dry Tortugas in the Florida Keys to protect a vibrant zone of
A de-facto marine reserve closed to longline fishing was established by
court-order in a million square miles of ocean north of Hawaii due to
illegal killing of endangered leatherback sea turtles by that fishery.
Calls to Protect Our Oceans
The concept of creating protected swimways for sea turtles in important
migratory, foraging, developmental and nesting habitat arose in
response to increasing calls from marine scientists to protect our wild
oceans in marine protected areas. Today, less than one-half of one
percent of the 4.4 million square miles of submerged lands under U. S.
jurisdiction is protected. The IUCN and the U. S. National Research
Council are calling for 20 percent of the world's oceans to be set
aside in marine protected areas by the year 2020 due to threats to
marine biodiversity overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, alien
species and global atmospheric change (National Research Council,
The Marine Conservation Biology Institute and The Cousteau Society
released a proposal in February 2000 pressing the Clinton
Administration to set up a network of linked marine protected areas in
the U. S. (Marine Conservation Biology Institute, 2000). The proposal
asked for 2 percent of U. S. waters to be protected by 2005 and for 20
percent of each ecosystem type to be represented. Unlike Canada with
its Ocean Protection Act, the U. S. currently has no policy to
establish a network of marine protected areas.
To date, most efforts to create marine protected areas have been
fishery focused on a case-by-case basis and viewed primarily as a tool
to protect diminished fish stocks. To benefit sea turtles, the
discussion must be enlarged to include endangered species and all
Why Sea Turtles Need Protected Swimways
Use of Turtle Excluder Devices in shrimp nets have not stopped large
numbers of sea turtles from washing up dead and dying along coastline
when shrimping is underway. Compliance with and enforcement of TEDs
laws has been inconsistent.
Repeated capture and escape of sea turtles through TEDs may be causing
sea turtle mortality. This points to the conclusion that TEDs have not turned out to
be the total solution for allowing shrimp fishing to occur without
negatively affecting sea turtles.
The commercial longline fishery is also taking a toll on sea turtle
populations, primarily the endangered Pacific leatherback. The coastal
drift gillnet fishery in California is exceeding its allowable take of
loggerheads. Other fisheries certainly take a toll on sea turtles as
For these reasons, sea turtle protection in fisheries must be enhanced
by creating marine protected areas that are closed to commercial
fishing. Strategically placed MPAs closed to commercial fishing would
provide immediate relief from incidental sea turtle capture and
Where to start?
Because the Kemp's ridley is the most endangered sea turtle in the
world, establishing a Kemp's Ridley Marine Reserve along the South
Texas coast could be the place to start.
At the species' primary nesting beach in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico, a
three-tiered conservation strategy has achieved results in the form of
slow recovery of a once abundant population. The strategy includes
beach protection, TEDs and a marine reserve that is off limits to
shrimp fishing during the sea turtle nesting and mating season, March
The Kemp's ridley in the U. S. has beach protection and TEDs, but no
marine reserve. As a result, more adult Kemp's ridleys die along the
South Texas coast than anywhere in the world (Shaver, 1999). This is
also the only regular nesting site for the Kemp's ridley in the United
The South Texas coast also provides important developmental habitat for
juvenile green sea turtles. Loggerheads and hawksbills also
occasionally nest here and leatherbacks are found stranded on these
beaches every year.
Other key areas in the U. S. to create protected swimways off limits to
shrimp fishing could include sections of the coast of Florida, Georgia,
North Carolina and South Carolina where sea turtles regularly nest and
forage. Existing marine reserves and sanctuaries could provide natural
starting points for establishing sea turtle swimways and increasing
fishing restrictions. Sea turtle biologists studying sea turtles in the
U. S. and overseas are best equipped to determine where other sea
turtle swimways should be established.
Benefits of Sea Turtle Swimways
Beyond protecting sea turtles in their ocean home, protected swimways
could also provide protection for marine mammals, fin-fish species,
other marine life, and the sea floor. Benefits could extend to coastal
communities in the form of enhanced fisheries and eco-tourism, to
scientists for research and for future generations of people.
STRP encourages the sea turtle community to begin identifying locations
for sea turtle swimways and become active in coalitions working to
create marine protected areas. STRP is working to create a
internet-basedcommunications network for sea turtle conservationists
striving to create marine reserves or swimways for sea turtles.
Ballantine, Bill, Marine Reserves in New Zealand, The Development of
the Concept and the Principles, 1999, University of Auckland, Leigh
Fujita, Rodney M., Willingham, Virginia, Freitas, Julene U.S. West
Coast Marine Reserves Appear to Enhance Fish Abundance and
Reproduction, , Environmental Defense Fund, October 1998
IUCN, 1994, Guidelines for Protected Area Management Categories
Marine Conservation Biology Institute and the Cousteau Society,
February 16, 2000. A Call for Presidential Action: Safeguarding
America's Seas: Establishing a National System of Marine Protected
MPA News, January 2000, MPA Nomenclature: The Thicket of Terms and Definitions Continues to Grow
National Marine Fisheries Service, 1999. Epperly, Sherry and Wendy G.
Teas, Evaluation of TED Opening Dimensions Relative to Size of Turtles
Stranding in the Western North Atlantic
National Research Council, 1998, Sustaining Marine Fisheries
Shaver, D. J. 1999 Padre Island National Seashore Kemp's Ridley Sea
Turtle Project and Texas Sea Turtle Strandings 1998 Report. Department
of the Interior, U. S. Geological Survey,