This post is one of a series on projects supported by the New England Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF). Through MCAF, the Aquarium supports researchers, conservationists, and grassroots organizations around the world as they work to address the most challenging problems facing the ocean.

In 2012, MCAF Fellow Captain John Flynn, founder of Wildseas, launched a successful sea turtle conservation program in Ghana in collaboration with fishermen and a local team. In this blog, Flynn describes the Wildseas team’s recent initiative to start a similar program in The Gambia with a local NGO.

Part 1

Small country, big potential. So there we were, well Neil Davis, Wildseas co-founder and Projects Director, to be exact, in Abidjan, The Gambia, at the inaugural meeting of the then soon-to-be-established West African Sea Turtle Conservation Network. It was both hot and humid, as it frequently is in that part of the world. The meetings were long, tedious, and, at times, somewhat boring (by all accounts). However, the event provided the opportunity to meet with others doing their bit to help our turtle friends in the East Atlantic/Gulf of Guinea area.

And so it was that after quite a lot of correspondence and a few months later, Neil, Eric Quayson (Wildseas country head in Ghana), and I would find ourselves landing on Gambian soil at 1 a.m. on a Wednesday intent on creating public awareness and converting the masses toward sea turtle conservation. When we say the masses, we really mean the artisanal fishermen who make their living from the riches provided by Gambian waters, which are also home, breeding grounds, and migratory routes for endangered sea turtles.

Using confiscated carapaces as educational props for size class and species identification with the fishermen of the Sanyang fleet.
Confiscated carapaces are used as educational props for size, class, and species identification with the fishermen of the Sanyang fleet.

At the time of this writing, our fishermen program in Ghana has released nearly 1,700 turtles that had been victims of bycatch in these artisanal fisheries. Aware that no such program existed in The Gambia, we decided it would be a good idea to partner with an established local NGO, Smile For Life, led by Omar Sanyang, and launch a similar program in The Gambia. The theme of the program would be “Think Global, Act Local,” given our understanding of the transoceanic migration of some sea turtle populations between breeding and feeding grounds and how actions in one place can have repercussions on the other side of the world.

If turtles are bycatch, one may wonder, why won’t fishermen just throw them back into the ocean? That is sadly not the case. To these artisanal fishermen, the concept of bycatch does not exist, as whatever gets caught in their nets is fair game. It is protein or it can be sold. This includes endangered sea turtles.

Typical Gambian artisanal hand crafted wooden fishing boats in the morning sun.
Typical Gambian artisanal, handcrafted wooden fishing boats are seen in the morning sun.

As sea turtles are both nationally and internationally protected species, interfering with a sea turtle or turtle eggs – they also nest on beaches along The Gambian coast at night from July to October – is an offense. However, living hand to mouth, and with effectively no enforcement of the law, these artisanal fishermen treat turtles the same as everything else they catch. Put in their position, it is very likely most of us would do as they do and that is important to remember when working with the fishermen. They are just regular people trying to get by like the rest of us. They do not have the luxury of choice. What they catch, they keep or sell because that is what feeds them and their families.

So how can we bring about change in such a challenging environment? The book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” should be mandatory reading before going into the field to try to persuade fishermen to change their age-old ways. But it’s not, and so we press on, dealing with each challenge as it arises. Every group we meet is a little different, so flexibility is the key in ensuring a successful outcome. The first step, as with so many things in life, is education. The fishermen view turtles as food or a saleable commodity and not for their ecological roles in the ocean. We educate them about simple things, such as how jellyfish prey on fish eggs, and leatherback turtles eat jellyfish. So if they protect leatherback sea turtles, the turtles will control jellyfish populations and more fish eggs will survive to become adult fish. These fish are what you will catch in the not-too-distant future so you can feed your family. Different species perform specialized roles, but all contribute to improved fish populations. We connect the dots for the fishermen and broaden their understanding of the environment in which they work and rely on.

Eric Quayson, John Flynn and Neil Davis with Omar Sanyang Executive Director of Smile For Life and the Director and an assistant of the Department of Parks and Wildlife Management
Eric Quayson, John Flynn, and Neil Davis pose with Omar Sanyang, Executive Director of Smile For Life, and the Director and an assistant of the Department of Parks and Wildlife Management.

And that changes everything. Now the fishermen, who to this point have most probably looked upon us as foreigner do-gooders poking our noses where they’re not wanted, take note and listen. It is no longer about not taking something just because it is protected by law, it is cute and charismatic, or because foreigners tell you that you should not. Now it is about protecting a subset of species that in turn protects their primary livelihood: fish. And that’s what matters most to them.

The “Think Global, Act Local” bycatch release initiative launch was partially supported by the New England Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund. In the second part of this blog, we will look at how the program plays out in practice, the attitudes of the fishermen, and the importance of partnering with other organizations to improve sea turtle conservation overall globally.

John Flynn and Omar Sanyang have a brief meeting with some local fishermen about the program
John Flynn and Omar Sanyang have a brief meeting with some local fishermen about the program.