Emma Brown, WCA Intern
23/09/2016: Brighton and Bahia, Worlds Apart
While Brighton and Bahia feel worlds apart, being a Brit in Brazil has so far been enjoyable, eye-opening and often entertaining. After only a week at The Humpback Whale Institute, the other interns have introduced me to local life and have been equally eager to hear about my side of the pond. During a tour of the idyllic coastline, I found myself trying to describe a beach without sand to my wide eyed housemates, made particularly hopeless by there being no Portuguese word for “pebble”. I was warned to be careful when trying the local delicacy, a deep fried doughy ball of beans and shrimp the size of a mans fist. This ‘Acaraje’ is so rich that some suffer for days after eating one, but I startled them all by putting away two in an afternoon, perhaps prepared by all the fish n’ chips and greasy spoon breakfasts. I found the Brazilian’s favourite dessert much harder to stomach though. Even the locals admit that the black ice cream made from Acai berries “tastes like dirt” (their words not mine), and I would still prefer a 99 with a flake rammed in any day.
Perhaps wishing to make me feel even more at home, the weather began to worsen. The ocean got steadily fiercer and the tourists steadily queasier until the tour operators called off whale watching activities entirely for several days. This left me with extra spare time and feeling very thankful to not suffer from sea sickness. I decided to make a start on the Net Effect campaign, but as I researched further into ghost nets and entanglement in Bahia and the east coast of Brazil, the plot started to thicken. Publications by UNEP and the FAO treat South America in general as a data deficient area on this topic, and my own search for scientific papers online proved this to be true. I branched out to ask my fellow researches, other biologists and local people their experience of the issue.
Interaction with fishing gear is recognised as a serious threat to the Humpbacks, on a par with boat strikes and noise pollution. 11 large whale entanglements have been recorded on Brazil’s east coast between 1993-2014, and 38 Right Whales were found to be entangled in the South of Brazil between 1999-2014. In 2007, discarded fishing gear was found to make up almost half of all marine litter found in the subtidal benthic ocean environment off Rio De Janeiro. My own beach cleaning activities in various locations along the coast gleaned a significant proportion of line, synthetic rope and gill net pieces amongst the drinks straws, havaianas flip flops and turtle bones. Perhaps most interestingly, one of my fellow interns explained that properly policed marine reserves can easily become a source of ghost nets. When fishermen are caught illegally casting their nets in this area, they cut them free to make a speedy exit and escape the consequences. Unfortunately, even animals in especially protected areas seem unable to escape the intentional and unintentional loss of nets by the fishing industry.
The lines become even more blurred when you take entanglement in live fishing gear into account. If discussing the issue of fishing nets lost at sea is like walking on eggshells, then the topic of entanglement in nets fishermen are trying to use to catch their livelihoods is like walking through a minefield. Further down the coast in Caravelas, the number of Humpback whales getting trapped in nets is on the rise as their numbers recover, and the fact these whales are disrupting the catch is lowering morale and support for the conservation project here. Around 40% of fishermen reported seeing entanglement, and over 56% considered the whales to hinder their fishing activities. A shift to long line fishing during the breeding season could alleviate these problems, but some argue the fairest way to solve the issue is through government compensation for the effected fishers.
Whales trapped in useful nets may not be the main focus of the Net Effect Campaign, but the problems are intrinsically linked. It is often hard to tell whether a net was in use when a whale was entangled, with only the amount of algae growing on the ropes to indicate how long it had been submerged for. Perhaps strandings data records some of these characteristics and may be cause for further investigation (Ill add it to my list of bed time reading).
Scientists studying sea turtles at TAMAR the turtle sanctuary face a similar problem. Their experts promote the use of circle shaped hooks, proven to catch fewer turtles by accident than ‘J’ shaped ones, to the long line pelagic fishermen further south. But this does not align with the fishing techniques in my location. Here TAMAR still regularly witness mortalities associated with nets, particularly when the juvenile Green turtles feeding on the reef interact with gill nets. In 2005, in Praia do Forte where I am staying, a single ghost net was discovered carrying the bodies of 17 drowned sea turtles. From the saddening photos, it is clear what happened. However, more often the dead turtles they discover are in such an advanced state of decomposition that it is almost impossible to collect data on the source of the net or the cause of death. Brazil may be data deficient, but not through lack of trying.
On a more positive note, both the Humpback whale Institute and TAMAR will be coordinating the National Beach Clean day here in a few weeks time. Along with getting the beach clean and giving us an idea of how much ghost gear is washing up, it presents the opportunity to get our message across to the children and young people who attend. Above all, I am sure everyone involved will throw themselves into the activity with the fabulous enthusiasm I have come to expect here. From the whispers of plans I have heard, this will not be one to miss!