Fishers’ guide to handling bycatch: Freshwater turtles

There are eleven native species of freshwater turtle live in the waterways of Queensland; all are protected under state legislation Eel fishers are the only commercial fishers that are permitted to interact with these animals

Almost all of Queensland's wild caught adult eel catch is exported live to Asia It's important that Commonwealth livestock approvals are maintained to ensure that the fishery is able to continue to operate in Queensland waters In order to achieve this, the Queensland Eel Fishery must demonstrate that all interactions with species of conservation interest, or SOCI, are reported And that measures have been put in place to reduce the incidences of future capture Regulations controlling the type of apparatus used has had a significant effect

By law, eel traps must have a codend (or pocket) attached that is long enough to reach the water's surface This codend must be attached to a float or buoy in a way that allows trapped air–breathing animals to surface to breathe The codend must also have regularly spaced rigid rings placed in the net to keep it open These rings further ensure that air–breathing bycatch are able to easily reach the surface Some fishers have found that using buoyant rings, such as well–sealed rings made of PVC irrigation tubing, further improves bycatch survival by providing additional access to the surface of the water

When the eel traps are retrieved from the water, it's important to deal with any captured turtles as a priority The safest way to handle a turtle is to approach from the rear, using one hand to grasp it behind the head and the other above the tail Some species can be particularly aggressive, but all should be handled with care Do not hold a turtle by its tail, as this can injure its spine Holding the turtle by the front and back of the shell is a secure method that ensures the handler will not be bitten or scratched by the claws

Before releasing the turtle, the handler needs to make a visual assessment of its state of health and any key features that can be used for species identification If the turtle is actively moving and breathing, it should be immediately identified using the turtle identification guide and gently released back into the water to minimise stress to the animal In the rare event that a trapped turtle has been unable to reach the surface for air, it may appear lifeless when first observed, but may just be temporarily comatosed Turtles returned to the water before they recover from this state will drown, so it's important that the following steps are taken to help prevent unnecessary death If the turtle is lethargic or shows no signs of movement or breathing when retrieved from the trap, it's important that it's placed into the recovery position as soon as possible

This method is highly effective for comatose marine turtles, and fishers have advised success with freshwater turtles too To do this, a shady position needs to be found with no signs of ants If an ant–free area cannot be found, then the turtle could be placed onto a thin piece of board on the bank The tail end of the turtle then needs to be raised to an angle that allows the lungs to be drained It's important the rear flippers are not raised so high that the neck becomes kinked, as this would prevent the water from draining freely

A comatosed turtle should be left in this position to recover This may take several hours The use of this recovery method is better than the alternative of returning it to the water where it could drown All turtles encountered in eel traps must be identified and entered into the SOCI logbook Use the identification guide to help

All licence holders have been supplied with a copy of the guide To identify a turtle, first find the page that corresponds to the area you are fishing Then follow the key by looking for distinguishing features If handled correctly, a turtle won't be able to bite Turtles can transmit bacterial diseases, which can cause serious illness

It's advised that after handling, fishers washes their hands with anti–bacterial soap solution Fishers should cover open wounds before handling any freshwater animals, including eels The use of protective gloves is also recommended By following these simple steps to turtle handling and identification, you will help to conserve our native turtle populations and sustain our fisheries

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