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Empowering Students through Science: Lessons in Protecting Turtles from Fishing Gear

Ocean Discovery staff and students take measurements and data during their directed research projects.

Left: Tina Fahy works with Ocean Discovery student to take morphometric data. Right: Ocean Discovery student measures a shark that was caught in his gillnet.

Up Ahead—Bright Futures

  • 100% of program graduates go on to higher education

  • 80% enroll directly in four year institutions as compared with less than 30% of their peers

  • 70% of participating students select college majors in science and conservation fields









May 29, 2012

In Baja California, Mexico, NOAA Fisheries scientists are doubling the impact of their research—protecting endangered sea turtles while mentoring the next generation of ocean scientists and ocean leaders.

Through a partnership with the San Diego-based non-profit Ocean Discovery Institute, NOAA is giving hands-on research opportunities to young people from urban and diverse backgrounds. 

Using Science to Find Solutions  

The program began through Ocean Discovery's six-year partnership with 
NOAA’s Office of Education, when Ocean Discovery’s founder and executive director,  Shara Fisler, initiated contact with Dr. Yonat Swimmer, a fisheries research biologist at NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. Fisler had been involved in bycatch reduction research for over a decade.  “Shara was interested in having the students work on a real problem and allowing them to be part of the solution to bycatch reduction,” Swimmer said. “She wanted a real-world scenario that the students could contribute to.”

During the last eight years, Swimmer, in conjunction with Dr. John Wang of the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, have guided the research. The research is funded by NOAA’s Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center in Honolulu, Hawaii and NOAA’s Southwest Regional Office, based in Long Beach, California. NOAA scientists, managers, and educators, Baja fishermen and Ocean Discovery have worked together to incorporate and ensure student participation.

Reducing Impacts of Fishing Gear on Sea Turtles

The sea turtle project allows students to develop scientific solutions to reduce the impacts of fishing gear on sea turtles. Turtles accidentally caught in fishing gear are referred to as bycatch. Participating high-school and college-aged students must study ocean science, learn lab and field research techniques, and know how to swim so they can spend the summer working in a field station in Baja California, Mexico on this research. 

Scientists help students understand research objectives and approaches and provide basic statistical tools so students can analyze collected data and present results. The mentors also share personal research experiences, support students’ scientific career pursuits, and enable participants to envision themselves as future scientists—a previously unthinkable goal.

Tina Fahy, a fisheries biologist, has been a mentor since 2006.  “It’s a great program and one of the more rewarding experiences I’ve had,” she said. “The students are all very serious about their particular research project and about collecting the data accurately. Following project completion, they present the results to a larger audience back in California.” In addition, many students present research results at conferences including the International Sea Turtle Symposium and the American Fisheries Society, regularly attended by thousands of professional scientists.

Testing for Safer Fishing Practices 

This season’s research team attached light sticks to gillnets, set from dusk to dawn, to see whether the lights helped turtles see the nets and avoid them.  “We work with local fishermen who used to catch turtles for subsistence, so they have the expertise in knowing when and where to find large numbers of turtles,” Fahy said. 

“We tested nets with and without the light sticks to see if it made any difference in the number of turtles caught," Fahy explained. "We stayed up all night, as long as the nets were in the water, checking them frequently so any turtles caught in the nets didn’t drown. The students weighed the turtles, measured their length and width, and tagged them before releasing them back into the ocean.”

Motivating Students for a Brighter Future 

For many scientists, it's inspirational to see students overcome disadvantages and excel in science. After completing the research, many students go on to internships at various NOAA offices. 

Participating students are also more motivated and prepared for continued education—100 percent of program graduates go on to higher education and 80 percent enroll directly in four-year institutions, as compared with less than 30 percent of their peers. More than 70 percent of these young people select college majors in science and conservation fields—a promising statistic for our future decision makers and our workforce.

Ocean Discovery’s unique model has received the 2010 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring, the highest honor bestowed from the United States Government.