Four olive ridley sea turtles and two grey reef sharks caught up in a ghost net in the Maldives. The turtles were rescued but unfortunately the sharks did not survive. Image credit: Pro Divers
Martin Stelfox, biologist and founder of The Olive Ridley Project, made a discovery in the Maldives that set him on a path to rescue some of the most endangered turtles in the world.
After spending over 15 years working on marine conservation projects all over the globe, in 2012 biologist Martin Stelfox landed himself a job in one of the most idyllic places on earth – the Maldives (no, he couldn’t believe his luck either).
All tropical paradise, baby powder-soft beaches and swaying palm trees? You bet! However, Stelfox quickly noticed how many sea turtles were drifting into the Maldives completely entangled in ghost nets – these are fishing nets that have been left or lost in the ocean by fishermen.
“As a biologist I was curious as to why this was happening given the fact that the Maldives do not generally use nets, rather, pole and line dominate the fisheries in the country.” He also noticed that it was the olive ridley turtles that were the species mostly found caught in the nets, which he thought was bizarre given that the species of turtles don’t typically nest in this part of the world.
“My curiosity resulted in me recording these events from all over the Maldives and focusing on the type of nets we were finding. It didn’t take long before we had a small team sending us data over social media and through emails so we started to build a database on net types found in an attempt to identify a potential origin – which we now know is an extremely difficult task! We decided to call the project the Olive Ridley Project (ORP) because of the species of sea turtle we were finding and it became a registered charity in the UK a few years later.”
Martin Stelfox working with local fishermen in Karachi, Pakistan, to understand the challenges surrounding marine debris management and lost fishing gear.
Since founding The Olive Ridley Project in 2013, the charity is completely dedicated to protecting sea turtles across the Indian Ocean. Stelfox tells us this is achieved by “robust scientific methods to monitor sea turtle populations, rehabilitate injured and sick sea turtles and minimise the impact of anthropogenic threats such as ghost nets to sea turtles and their habitats.”
A major part of the turtle biologist’s job for the Olive Ridley Project is working on that ‘database’ Stelfox mentions, taking photos of every sea turtle they come across during dives or rescues so they can be photo ID’d and thus, tracked. This has also become a popular task with tourists and scientists-to-be who just need to take a clear, focused photo while snorkelling and then email them over to the charity. Since 2013, ORP and its volunteers have recovered over 10 tonnes of ghost gear and over 700 entangled turtles have been recorded entangled.
Here, Stelfox reveals what his job involves today, the charity’s biggest achievements so far, and how tourists visiting the Maldives can help…
Ghost net found whilst on expedition in the far north of the Maldives on an island called Kelaa up in Haa Alif atoll. The team worked over a few days to cut it down into smaller chunks and remove it from the beach.
As the CEO and founder of the project, what is your main role?
My role as CEO has taken me by surprise. As the team continues to expand, I find myself spending more time overseeing projects and less time in the field. Running a charity is certainly less glamorous but provides a unique opportunity to really tackle a specific issue that is very close to my heart.
That said, I do like to keep as active as I can with all the projects and visit the infield biologists as often as I can. No matter where I go I always keep my eyes open for ghost nets, whether it be in the cold waters of the UK or warm tropical waters of the Maldives.
On my last expedition, I encountered an entangled turtle whilst surveying turtle populations in the Maldives. Although I have seen this type of thing more times than I care to remember, it does really drill home why I do what I do and makes all the hours writing emails and filling in paperwork more worth it.
How big is your team and how much of the ocean does the team cover in the Maldives?
We are a strong and passionate team that includes two vets, four trustees, two project coordinators, one field assistant and six turtle biologists. We also employ Maldivian interns to work at the rescue centre to gain experience shadowing our vets to learn new skills.
Our team in the Maldives are based across four atolls and between us we try to reach out to as many organisations, NGOs and local islands as we possibly can. There are 26 atolls in the Maldives and our ultimate goal is to have a turtle biologist stationed in each atoll to continue our long term data collection.
We have expanded our projects into Pakistan, Oman and Kenya with an aim to monitor sea turtle populations, work with local fishing villages and develop best practices for ghost gear management in the area. As our research into ghost gear hotspots develops, we will aim to expand further in the near future.
What has been Olive Ridley’s greatest achievement since you founded the charity?
We have made a number of milestones but two really stand out.
The first is the development of a veterinarian-run sea turtle rescue centre based in Baa Atoll at our partner resort in Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu. This was the first and currently only facility with round-the-clock vets and specialised equipment such as x-rays and an ultrasound machine to provide the best possible care for sea turtles.
The second is our project in Pakistan that sees us working closely with fishing communities. One community, Abdul Rehman Goth, recovered over four tonnes of ghost gear. Over 90% of this gear has been recycled into a number of different items such as bracelets, dog leashes, donkey harnesses and more.
The money generated from this initiative goes back to the community and this provides an alternative income for the fisher families at Abdul Rehman Goth. We hope to scale this project to neighbouring villages in the country.
How can tourists take an active part in helping the marine life while holidaying in the Maldives?
I think the most important thing tourists can do to help the Maldives and our oceans in general is to fall in love with the nature that surrounds them. Find your inner child and be curious about what it is you are seeing. From experience I have found that if we love something, we do everything to protect it, not just whilst on holiday. So, get out there and see as much as you can and remind yourself that if we do not work to reduce our consumption, the sights you are seeing may not be around for the next generation.
Marine biologist Deborah Burn (Left) and Martin Stelfox (Right) transplanting coral fragments on a coral line to help restore Maldivian coral reefs. These coral fragments grow on the lines and once large enough are transplanted back onto the reef. Image credit: Deborah Burn
Have you found that the impact of plastic pollution in the Maldives has gotten worse or better?
Honestly, no country wide assessment has been made to accurately answer this question, but certainly plastic bottles and sweet wrappers seem to litter every island I have been on in the Maldives.
The fundamental issue with plastics on island nations is waste management. The majority of islands have very few options to handle waste, so most is burnt or buried. If we can reduce or completely stop the use of single-use plastic this would be a huge step forward for the Maldives and a statement to the rest of the world to say that it is possible.
Does it sometimes feel like a never-ending issue, for instance, you may rescue a turtle from plastic one day, but the same problem will come back the next day?
I think the moment you start to think like that the harder it gets. I try to stay as positive as I can and the team we have at the charity certainly help keep that positivity at the forefront of everything we do. Yes, it is a big problem but we all must act to make a change and not wait for someone else to do it.
To learn more about the work of The Olive Ridley Project visit oliveridleyproject.org
Want to learn more about plastic waste in the oceans? Aquafil and Healthy Seas retrieve ghost fishing nets and turn them into ECONYL® yarn.
If you’re keen to learn more about effect on the planet, Sir David Attenborough’s New Nature Series Highlights Our Environmental Crisis – read more about it here.