Last week the Vancouver Sun published an article exposing the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) plan to kill 7 endangered sea turtles this spring following 10 years of experiments into their diving depths. As I read on through the article my initial shock turned to complete bewilderment when I read the following two quotes by the head of the Zoology department: “The final experiments require major surgery,” Bill Milsom said. They are necessary to “help us understand why these animals have such high mortality when caught in trawl nets in warming oceans.At the end of the surgery and measurements, the anesthesia will be increased until the turtles die.” Yes, he did just say that it is necessary to kill the turtles to help figure out how not to kill the turtles.

I’ve had the fortune of coming face to face with a green sea turtle while swimming in the ocean, and I’ve had the misfortune of finding a sea turtle washed up on a nesting beach after having been drowned in a trawl net. Both turtles were from endangered populations, both experiences were life changing.

The sea turtles used in the UBC study are green sea turtles or green turtles. Green turtles are found around the globe in tropical and, to a lesser extent, subtropical waters. They are highly migratory, travelling through various habitats, and are thought to inhabit the coastal waters of about 140 countries. If you’ve ever been to Hawaii, you likely will have gotten acquainted with these peaceful and friendly creatures who share the surf with tourists and island residents. Known as honu by locals, Hawaiian legends praise the honu as the mythical mother and protector of all children, and as a guide to voyagers at sea.

Hawaii is one area where major protection by the US government has actually led to some stock stability, but around the world, green turtle sub-populations are in terrible shape. In 2004, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified green turtles as endangered globally. Analyses of population abundance information have revealed that stocks have suffered extensive declines over the last century or so. They are thought to be regionally extinct in two countries, and possibly a third, and have an uncertain presence in another 34 countries. Six of the 7 sea turtle species (leatherback, loggerhead, etc) that exist on Earth are threatened with extinction.

Despite receiving protection under various international treaties, national laws, and a listing under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), prohibiting the international trade of this species, the green turtle continues to face many threats, inhibiting recovery. Legal and illegal harvests of eggs and adults from nesting beaches, coastal development, and habitat degradation in nesting and feeding areas have all played a major role in their demise. Mortality due to interactions in marine fishing gear including drift-netting, dynamite fishing, long-lining and shrimp trawling is the primary incidental threat.

The UBC department head, Milsom, stated that “More than 85,000 green sea turtles died as “bycatch in the fishing industry” between 1990 and 2008.” He is quoting a study published in Conservation Letters in 2010 by Bryan P. Wallace et al., but the full excerpt from the study actually reads “Based on all records we compiled, just over 85,000 marine turtles were taken as bycatch in gillnets, longlines, and trawls globally from 1990 through 2008. However, this reported total is likely an underestimate for several reasons. First, the reported bycatch rates from our database were based primarily on on-board observer programs that typically cover small proportions of the total fishing effort within a fleet (<1%–5%; e.g., Epperly et al. 2002; Garrison 2007). Thus, assuming reported bycatch from observed effort is, in general, representative of bycatch from unobserved effort, the reported tally reflects only 1%–5% of total marine turtle bycatch over this time period.”

Of the above mentioned 85,000 turtles, about 16,000 of them died in trawls, with the maximum bycatch per unit effort being 7.2 turtles per trawl haul. Considering the author’s estimate that the real number is actually at least two orders of magnitude greater, a whole lot of endangered turtles are being caught in trawls.

It is the fate of those turtles that the UBC researchers set out to study, hypothesizing that “By studying diving depths, researchers could recommend how deep fish nets should be placed to avoid catching the turtles.” But there are a number of things that Milsom and his team should have taken into consideration before embarking on these lethal studies.  

First, for those that are not aware, there are gear modifications made to trawl gear called Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) that are used to help allow turtles to escape when caught in nets. The US requires any shrimp trawl within US waters and any imports of shrimp into the country to employ TEDs. This is not to say that additional measures should not be taken to avoid turtles in fishing gear, clearly far greater action is needed, but if the TEDs aren’t working and the nature of the gear type inherently leads to the catch of non-target species, perhaps the continued use of gear type should be evaluated instead of the diving depth capability of the turtles.

Which brings me to my second point. Some forms of fishing should not exist, period. While gear can be modified and improved, some gear types will likely always negatively impact on marine ecosystems and non-target species. Longlines, bottom trawls, drift nets, have all contributed to the mass decline of numerous marine species worldwide, including turtles. There is a reason why many countries called for a ban on bottom trawling in the high seas and it isn’t all political. Trawls wreak havoc on our oceans. Shrimp trawls have been known to have levels of bycatch upwards of 90% of the catch by weight. That’s just insane. Especially when some of that catch are endangered species.

Third, Milsom says, “The study was designed to measure the impacts of climate change on the animals and to help countries develop policies around fishing.” Well if the estimations by Wallace et al. are true that only about 1-5% of fleets have on-board observer programs, who is going to ensure these changes in policy, etc are being enforced on the other 95% of the fleets that don’t have observers? So we save turtles in 1-5% of fisheries and what of the rest? I’m being a bit flippant, but you get where I’m going with it. Further, climate change related impacts on the ocean are happening right now whether we like it or not, and determining potential impacts on turtles through lethal means now isn’t going to stop what’s left of future generations from experiencing them later.  What is needed to avert climate change is not more lethal experiments on endangered animals but effective and ambitious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by our governments globally.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly to the numerous sea turtle lovers, concerned citizens, and scientists striving to find new and innovative ways to study animals in the wild without injury or stress, can killing them in a lab really be justified when the species may face extinction in the wild? Surely with all of our technology, we can figure out a way to study the diving depths of sea turtles by non-lethal means.  

The back and forth by the department about costs to let them live in peace somewhere, the arguments that they were born in captivity and thus somehow aren’t considered still part of a greater population, and whether it would be a “tragedy and a waste if the experiments were not seen through to completion” is nauseating and really, there is no truly just outcome for the turtles who are live science experiments, poked and prodded since they were young. I came away from the article with this overwhelming feeling that despite all the species we’ve killed off the planet, we seem to still be missing the value of existence beyond a species benefit to or interference with human life.  

Ancestors of the creatures in the lab have coexisted with dinosaurs, have survived the Earth’s ice age, have been swimming around our oceans for over 200 million years, and can live to be over a century old. They are the true grandfathers and grandmothers of our seas. And yet in the span of one of their lifetimes, destructive and wasteful human activities have pushed them to the brink of extinction. Have we really lost all sense of humility that we don’t see something wrong with killing more to try to right one of humankind’s many wrongs?

This situation is reminiscent of the Japanese government’s ‘research’ whaling program, where they planned to kill endangered Southern Ocean humpback whales in order to study population dynamics to do population estimates and to study their diets. Well, for each whale you kill for a population estimate, you decrease that estimate by one. It doesn’t take a Zoologist to figure out that eventually you’ll have nothing to study. People around the globe scoff at the Japanese government’s attempts to justify their ‘research’. I think UBC would be wise to listen to the will of the people on this one- when people scoff loud enough, no explanation or excuse will make them go away.