Mortality rates in by-caught loggerhead turtle Caretta caretta in the Mediterranean Sea and implications for the Atlantic populations
Reliable estimates of the post-release mortality probability of marine turtles after incidental by-catch are essential for assessing the impact of longline fishing on these species. Large numbers of loggerhead turtles Caretta caretta from rookeries in the northwestern Atlantic Ocean have been by-caught annually in the southwestern Mediterranean Sea since the 1980s, but nothing is known about their post-release mortality probability under natural conditions. Pop-up archival transmitting tags were attached to 26 loggerhead turtles following incidental capture by Spanish longliners. Hooks were not removed, and 40 cm of line was left in place. The post-release mortality probability during the 90 d following release ranged from 0.308 to 0.365, and was independent of hook location. When the post-release mortality probability was combined with previously reported estimates of the mortality probability before hauling, the aggregated by-catch mortality probability ranged from 0.321 to 0.378. Assuming a total annual by-catch of 10656 loggerhead turtles by the Spanish longline fleet operating in the southwestern Mediterranean, by-catch results in 3421 to 4028 turtle deaths annually. This range is equivalent to 8.5-10.1% of the approximately 40000 turtles inhabiting the fishing grounds used by Spanish longliners, most of them from rookeries in the northwestern Atlantic. As a consequence, the accumulated mortality during the oceanic stage is expected to be larger for those loggerhead turtles of Atlantic origin that spend several years in the Mediterranean Sea than for turtles of the same cohort that remain in the Atlantic. For this reason, the Mediterranean can be considered a dead end for loggerhead turtle populations nesting in the Atlantic, although the actual demographic relevance of by-catch mortality of loggerhead turtles in the Mediterranean remains unknown.