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Fisherman Firman bin Jawasa remembers the catch well. He was 20 years old and trawling for shrimp with his uncle in the coastal waters off northern Borneo, Malaysia, when something in their heavy net started thrashing. Caught inside was a frenzied sea turtle, snapping at the net. The turtle was too difficult to handle so they left the net in the water hoping the meter-long creature would escape. Soon after, to Firman’s relief, the turtle bit through the net and fled.
Eighteen years later, Firman is now the captain of his own shrimp trawler. In 20 years of fishing he says he has caught only that one turtle, but a 2007 survey of fishermen in his home state of Sabah suggests that each year almost 4,500 turtles accidentally drown in shrimp trawler nets.
Sea turtles are protected in Malaysia, and the law prohibits harming or keeping them without permits. Eager to avoid any hassle, most fishermen don’t report by-catch, so it’s almost impossible to know exactly how many turtles die in this way. But with turtle populations dwindling due to habitat destruction and poaching, every by-catch death is one too many. And a panicked turtle damages trawl nets, too. Everyone loses when a turtle is caught in a net.
But there is a solution—a low-tech turtle excluder device (TED), a metal grate that stops a turtle midway into the net and directs it out a hole in the net’s side. The target species of nearshore trawl fisheries, usually shrimp and fishes including small rays, simply pass between the grate’s bars and are caught at the end of the net. But, while a TED sounds like a simple win-win fix for fishermen and turtles, it hasn’t seen widespread adoption among the Malaysian fishing fleet. That’s a situation some turtle advocates are striving to change.
The US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) started developing TEDs in the 1980s, inspired by shrimp trawlers in South Carolina and Georgia who added grids to their nets to exclude jellyfish that frequently clogged them. After several design iterations, today’s TEDs are elegantly simple and relatively easy to install. While a fisherman skilled with a needle can weave a TED into his net within hours, persuading him to do so can take years. In Malaysia’s case, it’s taken decades and the persistence of turtle researcher and conservationist Nicolas Pilcher.
Pilcher, who’s British and now a permanent resident of Malaysia, started studying sea turtles in the 1980s. Then turtle numbers began to drop, and he realized that they might go extinct during his research career. “That was a big revelation for me. At that point I changed my focus,” recalls Pilcher, who set up a nonprofit organization, the Marine Research Foundation (MRF), to do conservation work.
But Pilcher, who describes himself as more “realistic and pragmatic than many conservationists,” says he isn’t exactly a turtle savior. “I have nothing against people eating a turtle. I have something against somebody eating the last turtle.”
Historically, four species of sea turtle—hawksbill, leatherback, olive ridley, and green—nested in Malaysia and they’ve long been an integral and proud part of local identity. In 1986, when delegates arrived at an international travel conference hosted in Malaysia they were welcomed by banners showing a leatherback turtle wearing sunglasses. The soccer team of a state known for turtle nesting is fondly called Penyu, the Malay word for turtle, and the country’s 20 ringgit bill has an image of two turtles, a leatherback and a hawksbill. Yet despite this attention, only one species, the green turtle, shows stable numbers. Populations of the other three have greatly plummeted. Apart from one surprise sighting in 2017, the iconic leatherback turtle has not been spotted for decades.
While another animal can replace the turtle on logos or currency, there is no ready replacement for the turtles’ ecological roles in the sea. Sitting relatively high in the marine food web, turtles eat middle predators including jellyfish. And since jellyfish dine on shrimp and fish, these seafoods would decline if there were fewer turtles to rein in the jellyfish.
In 2007, Pilcher surveyed Sabah fishermen to estimate how fisheries affect large marine animals, including manatees, dolphins, and turtles. He was shocked to find that thousands of turtles drown in shrimp trawler nets every year, but he knew that there was a solution in TEDs, a technology that was gaining traction in sea turtle conservation. “This isn’t one of those unsolvable problems on the planet,” says Pilcher. “We just needed to do it. That was the beginning of the TED program [in Malaysia].”
Malaysian officials, however, were wary about adopting TEDs because of a contentious history. In the late 1990s, the United States stopped importing shrimp from trawlers that did not have a TED or equivalent turtle-friendly measures. Malaysia and several other shrimp-exporting countries challenged the trade restriction at the World Trade Organization (WTO), calling it a disguised protection for the United States’ domestic fisheries and discrimination against certain nations. But after the United States revised its sea turtle protection laws to comply with WTO rules, the restriction held, and Malaysian shrimp trawlers have not sold to the American market since. “At that time, TED was a bad word,” says Pilcher with a laugh.
The then-director general of the Department of Fisheries Malaysia, however, was sympathetic to Pilcher’s cause. “He wasn’t happy that turtles were being killed, but he also had no real way of dealing with it,” recalls Pilcher. So he proposed a small pilot project to trial TEDs in Malaysia with a promise to the director general to keep a low profile.
Initially, Pilcher thought that fishermen would accept TEDs if they understood how they prevent turtles from getting caught in their nets. He went to sea with the fishermen, learned their ways and language, and demonstrated how the devices worked. But Pilcher managed to convince only a few fishermen to adopt TEDs since they saw little incentive for the effort. While a turtle could damage a net, catching one was uncommon. For most fishermen, a hypothetical turtle capture failed to override the concern—however unfounded—of losing their catch through a flap meant for turtles.
When voluntary adoption of TEDs failed, Pilcher realized the only way to ensure their installation was to make them a legal requirement. He needed the fisheries department to openly support and drive TED adoption. To get the agency on board, in 2012, Pilcher took four senior fisheries officers to an NMFS facility in Florida for a nine-day training session on using various TEDs at sea.
The immersive experience invigorated the officers, and the department began to work earnestly with Pilcher on the TED program. As the team demonstrated the devices in fishing villages, they realized fishermen were worried about its design. Pilcher had been advocating a standard oval TED developed in the United States. Fishermen, however, feared that the oval grate would cause their nets to twist, and that stingrays—one of their more lucrative catches—could not cross through the grate’s vertical bars. Consequently, the department and the MRF built in a curved horizontal gap wide enough for stingrays—but not turtles—to make Malaysia’s own modified TED.
In 2013, Pilcher and the director general took the Malaysian TED to Florida to be tested by the NMFS. In the field test, it helped turtles escape a net in less than two minutes, much faster than the passing threshold of five minutes. The Malaysian team was extremely proud, says Pilcher. The success was also a coup for the Malaysian shrimp fleet—American approval certifies Malaysian shrimp as being “turtle free,” potentially opening US markets to Malaysian fishermen with TEDs installed. The option to export to the United States “means we have more power in the marketplace,” says Pilcher.
Back in Malaysia, the Department of Fisheries set up a task force—with Pilcher as technical advisor—to implement TEDs nationwide. They drafted a timeline for TED compliance: the four states on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia in 2017; the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah in 2020; and the rest of the country by 2022. So far, progress is on schedule with the east coast states of peninsular Malaysia and their 200-odd shrimp trawlers now fully TED-compliant. But Sabah has more than 700 boats; Pilcher and his team have a lot of work ahead.
On a cloudy December morning, I join MRF staff for a TED workshop in the coastal fishing village of Kampung Tinosa Dua in northeastern Sabah. The village sits on wood and cement stilts above a mudflat where about 3,000 people live in houses with zinc plate roofs and wood plank walls, many lined with pots of pink and white bougainvillea. Below the homes, the low tide exposes trash—plastic bottles, instant noodle packages, broken TVs—that carpets much of the mudflat. The air smells of the coming rain, but also of brine and stagnant water.
Firman and about 50 fishermen arrive for the workshop, as do several officers from the fisheries department. Liyana Izwin binti Khalid, who coordinates the TED program for the MRF, begins by asking who’s heard of a TED: three fishermen raise their hands. When she points to one of the devices hanging at the back of the hall and explains how the 80-centimeter-wide metal grate goes inside the trawl net, the once-silent audience begins to perk up. The younger participants laugh quietly—perhaps with a tinge of disbelief that the simple device could work—when Liyana plays a video of a turtle saved by a TED and escaping a trawl net.
After Liyana’s presentation, about 15 fishermen set to work in three groups. They weave grates into nets, then cut holes in the sides and sew on flaps under the watchful eyes of Liyana and her team. The fishermen work cautiously at first, then one group speeds up and soon the race is on, their pace unbroken by jests and taunts. Firman and his friends weave with such ease that their torpedo-shaped needles look like fish darting in and out of the net. Channeling years of experience, fishermen become craftsmen.
As the fishermen build the TEDs—a process that takes about four hours—the fisheries officers mingle among them. En Kiong Chin has participated in several workshops before and knows how to build TEDs. He’s seen and heard firsthand what fishermen think of the devices, and says the response is mixed. “Some find a TED easy to set up and believe it can save turtles, but others reject it because they think it releases stingrays and dirties the net with mud [from the seafloor],” Chin tells me as we watch the fishermen work.
He joined the fisheries in 1993 and was around in 2007 when Pilcher first tried to get fishermen to adopt the TEDs, but says that then “there was no incentive.” Even today with the new training, he says that most of them don’t use the TEDs, even ones they’re given by the MRF. “They put [the TED] in their houses. They still have doubts and give all sorts of reasons to not use it,” says Chin.
Masni bin Omar, who has been fishing for over 30 years and owns several boats, chips in. He claims that before he used a TED, he accidentally caught five turtles, all of which he released alive. Still he knows that despite his luck at releasing the turtles, it’s time to learn about TEDs “lest it’s too late,” referring to his expectation that having a TED will soon be compulsory for shrimp trawler license renewal. It already is in the four eastern states in peninsular Malaysia. Since attending a TED workshop in 2016, Masni uses a TED on his shrimp trawler except when there are too many jellyfish in the water and they clog the metal grate.
The next day, six shrimp trawlers gather at the village jetty to field test the TEDs. Three of the boats hang their trawl nets high, the TEDs conspicuous inside. Firman’s boat, on which he’s pasted an MRF sticker that says “turtle friendly,” is one of the three with a TED. The engines fire up and the boats motor off in pairs—one boat with a TED and one without. We’re heading about five kilometers offshore where we’ll trawl for two 60-minute sessions.
I join Liyana aboard one of the TED-equipped boats, trying my best to be useful but not in the way. Soon it’s raining and the boats are tossing in choppy waves, so Liyana instructs the crews to shorten the trawls to 45 minutes. When our net is pulled in after the first trawl, a small bounty of shrimp, crabs, and small fishes, including stingrays, spill onto the white deck. The second haul catches more shrimp and fishes, a huge tree branch, and a mud-filled plastic bottle. Liyana helps a boathand sort the catch—while another greenhorn boathand and I sit still in our futile attempt to suppress seasickness.
When all six trawlers return to the jetty, the crews hop from boat to boat sizing the catches. One boat without a TED has a huge catch of shrimp and even a few prized fishes, easily trumping the hauls from the TED-equipped boats. The weighing scale shows that, collectively, the trawlers without TEDs caught more than double the shrimp of those with TEDs. Some fishermen whisper among themselves, eyeing the scale.
“So what does this mean?” asks the wife of one fisherman, pointing to the bigger pile of shrimp from the boats without the TEDs. “We can’t say anything based on one trial,” explains Liyana, not missing a beat. And it’s true. Every trial has slight differences that affect the catch size, such as the boat or engine size, so only combining the results of several trials will reveal the impacts of TEDs. Studies have shown that the difference in catch between the boats with and without a TED is statistically insignificant. Still, talk of statistical significance does little to quell the perception that boats are losing a portion of their catch through a turtle’s escape hatch.
As Liyana is busy weighing the catch, Firman stands in a corner, observing the numbers. He has tried the earlier oval TED, but stopped when he noticed his catch fell behind others. He likes this new design. “I would try this for a week. I will compare with nets without a TED,” he says, lighting a cigarette. “If the catch is less with a TED, I would stop using it.”
Pilcher knows that it’s easy for Firman and other fishermen to question TEDs. But he believes that all of Malaysia will eventually become compliant as the new government—elected in May 2018—catches up on the program. “Malaysia is making some realistic, pragmatic steps in turtle conservation. And one day in the future, they will be seen as being a leader in the region, and in many ways globally, by having dealt with this on their own terms, in their own way with their culture and people.”
Back at the jetty, Liyana wraps up the trial by thanking the participants. She gives a TED to each captain of the three boats that had not installed one and everyone huddles around the TEDs for a group photo. A fisherman in his 20s flashes V-signs with both hands. The older fishermen simply smile, and after thanking Liyana, return to their boats with TEDs in hand.