Corbeaux (vultures) and a dog feast on newly laid Leatherback turtle eggs on the Grande Riviere Beach.

In a remarkable admission, Grande Riviere’s fishermen are breaking their silence on why there is a dwindling Leatherback turtle population – they say they are to blame.

“Turtles don’t die on land. Turtles, when it comes ashore to nest, it doesn’t ever die,” explained Kyle Charles, the President of the Grande Riviere Young Fishermen Association. The biggest threat to turtles it seems, is fishermen, who have a love-hate relationship with these marine animals.

Every year, between March and August, these giant turtles make their way onto Trinidad and Tobago’s shores, completing a near 12,000-kilometer journey from the Canadian Maritimes. With the surge of turtles, the schools of fish accompany sending more fishermen out to sea.

From 6:00 pm to 6:00 am, nets woven with nylon and rope stretch across Toco to Matelot. While the primary target is fish, there is an unintended consequence called bycatch – the incidental capture of Leatherback turtles. According to the Grande Riviere fishermen, this has created an expensive and dire situation.

Charles explained, “We, with our nets, are the main cause for the decline of turtles in this region, nothing else.”

When entangled in a net, these giants, weighing thousands of pounds, can become dangerous for all involved, causing fisherfolk to resort to potentially deadly force.

“If you go on a boat, any fisherman boat from Matelot to Toco, you sure to see a piece of wood or a cutlass. That is to beat the turtle because it is the only when the turtle gets a lash behind its head, it starts to calm down. Some of the blows are dealt so severely, the turtles are dead instantly because it mashes ups a net,” Charles recounted as if he were reliving his time on the sea.

For turtle-lovers, it may not be easy to sympathize with the fishermen. That is until you realize this is their only livelihood, with turtle destruction placing them in a deep financial hole. Large nets cost tens of thousands of dollars, with over $1,000 spent in gas for the night. One entangled Leatherback turtle can result in no catch for the night and cutting the turtle out of the net will result in more expenses, effectively putting them out of their trade indefinitely.

One fisherman, O’Neil Coa of Grande Riviere, lamented, “we try as much as really to protect them because they are endangered species. Sometimes when I chop up the net for them to live, it’s distress, distress, and more distress.”

As he pointed at his damaged nets, “this is thousands to fix back; this is a ball here right now. I can’t even go in the sea right now to fish to get money to start to fix this.”

An occasional turtle may not be much of a humbug to fishermen, but the true number of turtles caught at night is astounding. According to one fisherman identified as Markie, “If ten fishermen go out with nets and hold three turtles, that’s 30 turtles gone in one night. And it’s not even that, fishermen hold 28 turtles, 30 turtles in one night, so you do that maths.” He continued, “we can’t say Trinidad is tourism, and we’re saving the turtle’s lives; that’s lie. We are licking them up out there, boy. We licking them up.”

Fishermen have proposed a solution that would prevent the death of the endangered species and bring security for Grande Riviere’s fishermen. The caveat – it would require governmental assistance.