Marine Research Foundation, Sabah, Malaysia


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Sea turtles across the planet face a range of pressures. Hunting, egg collection, loss of nesting beaches, along with habitat alteration (Lutcavage et al., 1997), and possibly most pervasively, bycatch in commercial and artisanal fisheries (NRC, 1990; Epperly, 2003). The US National Research Council listed shrimp fishing as the most serious threat to turtles back in 1990, as turtles that overlap with fishing grounds become entrained in fishing nets and drown (NRC, 1990). In the US alone, estimates of thousands upon thousands of sea turtles being killed in shrimp fisheries (Finkbeiner et al., 2011) drove the National Marine Fisheries Service to adopt Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) as the primary mitigation measure back in the 1980s. A TED is usually an oval frame with vertical bars set at precise spacing that allows shrimp and fish to pass through to the cod end, at the back of the net, while turtles and other large objects are forced out through an opening covered by a net flap. Seen from a practical standpoint, TEDscan improvethe quality of the catch, as large objects such as logs and large animals do not crush it, and the reduction of debris in the back of the net saves fuel, which is a benefit to fishers.

But TEDs have met with opposition from day one. In particular, fishers are concerned over catch loss and a decrease in revenue. Shrimp loss rates in the US were earlier estimated in the region of 1% to 13% (Renaud et al., 1993) although subsequent, more robust assessments of those same data pointed to loss rates in the region of 6% (Gallaway et al., 2008). More recently, economic analysis and empirical testing of models suggests this figure is likely closer to 2% (Mukherjee & Segerson, 2011). Fishers also find TEDs bulky or otherwise unsuitable- whether this is real or just perceived – and the controversy reigns to this very day. A good account of this long-standing controversy, at least for the US, is provided by Durrenberger (1990). And yet, TEDs have been adopted by a number of countries across the planet with varying (usually positive) degrees of success. And until something better comes along, and so long as shrimp fisheries persist, TEDs are here to stay.

In Malaysia the TED adoption story is an interesting one, as it entwines turtles, politics, international diplomacy and, of course, fishers and turtles. It started in the late 1990s, when the US adopted legislation that required countries that exported shrimp to the US to use bycatch-reduction devices such as TEDs (Mitchell, 1991). Malaysia and several other countries took the case to the World Trade Organization, arguing (at its most basic) that this imposed the laws of one country upon another. The WTO agreed and the US had to re-open the trade (WTO, 1998). For several years this went back and forth, until the WTO finally recognised the US’s position and what it was trying to do – save turtles (e.g. WTO 2001). In Malaysia though, TEDs were by then apparata non grata and turtles continued to suffer.

As the dust settled on TEDs politically, in 2007 and with seed funding from Malaysia’s GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP), the Marine Research Foundation (MRF), a small two-person NGO based in Sabah, set about contacting fishermen. At first MRF tried selling the idea of trialing TEDs for a short period, ‘just to see how they would work on Malaysian boats’. Through that project TEDs slowly gained acceptance among a small group of fishers, and the programme was ‘officially’ underway. To better explain TED performance, MRF raised funds from Conservation International (CI)in the Philippines to create a short documentary video using local boats and crews. Another grant enabled MRF to take six fishermen on a study tour in the US, hosted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The fishers came back as ambassadors to the programme. A year later, a second round of GEF/SGP funding allowed MRF to expand the project to a second port, where the programme slowly grew. During that phase MRF also used GoPro cameras to prove to fishermen that the flaps were indeed closed and that turtles were being saved nearly every day, with minimal loss to catches. The camera footage was a real eye-opener and more fishing crews bought into the idea. Several grants from the Save Our Seas Foundation (SOSF) allowed MRF to continue to trial TEDs at an experimental level. A key lesson herein was that it took a number of years and several grants to get things going. MRF leveraged SGP funds to get the CI funding. Later, MRF leveraged the CI and NMFS funding into the second SGP round, and finally MRF used this to leverage the SOSF funding. The process lasted several years, and required the creative marketing and financing skills to keep the project running.

But the truth was that the voluntary adoption process was not working as well as one would have hoped. It was time-consuming and MRF could reach only a handful of fishers willing to try TEDs, which they quickly removed when the trials were over. What was needed was for the Malaysian government to come on board and drive the programme, because without legal backing, TEDs were not going to be mainstreamed into Malaysian policy.

And so another year later and with a second grant from the US NOAA Pacific Islands Regional Office, MRF managed to take four government officials to visit the NMFS while TEDs were being tested with live turtles off the coast of Florida. The officials returned and made a strong case for TEDs, and shortly thereafter MRF and the Malaysian Department of Fisheries (DOF) discussed ways to improve TED uptake at a national level. Finally, a grant from the SOSF provided an opportunity to take the Director General of Malaysia’s DOF on a fact-finding mission to the US. This was a major, if not the most significant, turning point in the Malaysian TED story.

While in Florida, a Malaysia-designed TED was submitted to the NMFS for rigorous testing and it worked like magic-every turtle escaped in less than one minute. This was a crucial turning point: witnessing the performance of the Malaysia TED encouraged the Malaysian DOF to take things further: The Director General instructed his staff to establish a national steering committee and tasked it with developing a long-term implementation strategy. The committee has (since) met several times and a long-term implementation plan is underway. As the government embarks on the nationwide programme, MRF has been asked to provide technical advice to the committee and to the Department of Fisheries.

Jointly, and with an SGP Strategic Grant matched by NOAA funds, MRF and the Malaysian DOF now run workshops across the country; training fishers, net makers and DOF officials in the proper construction, installation and use of TEDs. The DOF has set 2017 as the date for legal requirements for TEDs in shrimp fisheries. This is an amazing achievement- from NGO initiative to fully-fledged Government programme. It is a wonderful case study of leveraging the power of a small SGP grant into something larger, growing it and nurturing it until it blossoms into a government programme.

Not all Malaysia’s fleets are equipped with TEDs yet, but this is just a matter of time. State by state and port by port, TEDs are being introduced one boat at a time- and as this happens, the future of Malaysia’s turtle populations is being safeguarded. It is an exemplary story of how a small NGO can leverage funding and known technology- controversial or not- into a National program and help create the environment in which sea turtles continue to flourish.

But a word of caution: It is important to note that just as any fishing gear’s applicability and effectiveness varies from location to location, so do the effectiveness and applicability of TEDs. Not all fishing grounds compare. Not all nets are the same. Not all vessels are the same, or even closely similar. Not all gear designs are compatible. Some vessels tow one net; others two, or even four. Some trawl nets have long ‘legs’ from the otter boards to the net proper. Others barely have legs at all. Some use ‘tickler chains’, others use T-shaped spreader bars. Some are retrieved manually and others are retrieved with mechanical winches. All of these and a suite of other factors impact how effective a net, and thus a TED, can be in any given situation. Thus, as a fisher learns- evolves even – to adapt to fishery and gear and weather and debris and oceanographic and seabed characteristics, so the need to adapt and evolve the use of TEDs concurrently so that they become as efficient and effective as possible- often likely resulting in benefits to the fisher, and almost certainly resulting in benefits to sea turtles.

A TED is merely a metal grid. It is how it is used, not only its design, that saves turtles. In Malaysia, the varied fisheries are, encouragingly, slowly coming to understand this very concept.

Literature cited

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