Turtle Excluder Devices: A Controversy That Works in Malaysia

06/10/2015 10:14 am ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016
Save Our Seas Foundation

Sea turtles across the planet face a range of pressures. Hunting, egg collection, loss of nesting beaches, habitat alteration, and possibly most pervasively, bycatch in commercial and artisanal fisheries. I have spent the last 20 years working with turtles in Malaysia. During that time, a major objective has been to protect these aquatic dinosaurs from becoming bycatch by convincing shrimp fishermen to install Turtle Exclusion Devices (TEDs) in their nets. Almost 10 years since I first approached fishers, the Malaysian government has implemented a nationwide program to have TEDs installed in shrimp trawlers.

In 1990, the U.S. National Research Council listed shrimp fishing as the most serious threat to turtles, because animals that overlap with fishing grounds become entangled in fishing nets and drown. In the U.S. alone, estimates of thousands upon thousands of sea turtles being killed in shrimp fisheries drove the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) 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.

TEDs have met with opposition from day one. Fishers found them bulky or otherwise unsuitable -- whether this was real or just perceived -- and the controversy reigns to this very day. And yet, TEDs have been adopted by a number of countries across the planet with varying degrees of success.

In Malaysia, the TED-adoption story started in the late 1990s, when the U.S. adopted legislation requiring countries that exported shrimp to the U.S. to use bycatch-reduction devices such as TEDs. Malaysia and several other countries took the case to the World Trade Organization (WTO), arguing that this imposed the laws of one country upon another. The WTO agreed and the U.S. had to re-open the trade. For several years, this went back and forth, until the WTO finally recognized the U.S.'s position and what it was trying to do -- save turtles. In Malaysia, though, TEDs were now apparata non grata and turtles continued to suffer.

In 2007, as the dust settled on TEDs politically, I set about contacting fishermen. At first, I tried selling the idea of trialing TEDs for a short period, "just to see how they would work on Malaysian boats." At the outset, I met Chua Yau Tsen, the owner of 13 trawlers and a shrimp-processing plant, who soon became the greatest supporter of the TED programme. TEDs slowly gained acceptance among a small group of fishers and the programme was under way.

But a few years later, despite producing an educational film, taking six fishermen on a study tour in the U.S. and personally convincing more and more fishing crews to participate in TED trials, the voluntary-adoption process was not working. It was time-consuming and I could reach only a handful of fishers willing to try TEDs, which they quickly removed when the trials were over. I needed the Malaysian government to come on board and drive the programme, because without legal backing, TEDs were not going to make it to the big leagues.

And so another year later, I took four government officials to visit the United States National Marine Fisheries Service while TEDs were being tested with live turtles off the coast of Florida. The officials came back changed people and shortly thereafter I was summoned to Malaysia's federal administrative centre, Putrajaya, where the Department of Fisheries' Director General Ahamad Sakbi Bin Mahmood and I discussed ways to improve TED uptake. In June 2013, I was able to take to take the DG himself on a fact-finding mission.

While in Florida, the DG and I submitted a TED that had been designed specifically for use in Malaysia to the NMFS for rigorous testing. Every turtle escaped in less than one minute. This was a crucial turning point: witnessing the performance of the Malaysia TED encouraged the Malaysian Fisheries Department to take things further and the director general returned to Malaysia convinced that TEDs should be implemented in his country. By engaging the right individual, we have been able to fast track a conservation measure that might otherwise have taken decades -- if it had happened at all.

As the government embarks on the nationwide programme, I have been asked to be the technical advisor. The Fisheries Department and my own organization, The Marine Research Foundation now run workshops across the country, training fishers, net makers and Fishery Department officials in the proper construction, installation and use of TEDs. The Department has set 2017 as the date for legal requirements for TEDs in shrimp fisheries. 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.

During the past 10 years, whilst working to achieve the TED programme, I was supported by the Save Our Seas Foundation, Conservation International, Malaysia's Global Environment Facility, and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action. The series is being produced to coincide with World Oceans Day (June 8), as part of HuffPost's "What's Working" initiative, putting a spotlight on initiatives around the world that are solutions oriented. To read all the posts in the series, read here.