Conservation: The Fight for Fins

I was born in Los Angeles California, a son of Costa Rican immigrants. I was raised next to the ocean, in a town called Manhattan Beach. I would spend the summers at the beach, but what really inspired me to protect the ocean was watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Thanks to Cousteau, I have been aware of overfishing and the way we endanger the ocean’s inhabitants from a very early age.

When I first started my marine conservation career, I was predominantly a sea turtle biologist. It was evident that fisheries-induced sea turtle mortality posed the greatest threat to their conservation. While studying the impact of shrimp trawl operations on sea turtles during the 1990s, the fishermen themselves tipped me off to take a closer look at the longline industry. ‘They kill more turtles than we do’, was their main claim. Declining trends of leatherback sea turtle populations in the Eastern Pacific coincided with increasing longline fishing effort, but no direct connection had been made.

In 1997, just after I’d founded the Association for the Restoration of Sea Turtles (PRETOMA), my colleague Roberto Vargas got a job as a cook onboard a longline vessel for several weeks and asked us to equip him with a video camera. The footage he brought back was appalling. Two young critically endangered leatherback sea turtles were hooked on the longlines, as well as a sea lion. At the very end of the video, the fishers haul up a blue shark, they hack off the fins while the animal is struggling in pain and agony, and then it is thrown back, still alive, into the ocean. This video changed the course of my career. Right then I realised a couple of things. First, that leatherback turtle populations are declining to critical levels in the Eastern Pacific due to their incidental catch and mortality in fisheries that are actively shark finning. Second, the only ecosystem-wide solution is a reduction of fishing efforts.

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