ASU scientist Jesse Senko’s solar-powered lights are rescuing more than sea turtles from fishing nets — they’re helping to transform the future of sustainable fishing
Twelve-year-old Jesse Senko is on vacation with his family in the Cayman Islands. They’re on a snorkeling tour. Senko is in the water, dazzled by the fish, when a big green sea turtle appears in front of him. Because he is a 12-year-old boy, he grabs it. The turtle takes off. Every 15 to 30 seconds it surfaces for air.
Senko’s mother is on the boat, throwing up, panicking, screaming “Come back!” The boat operator is cursing because what to do when a kid takes off on a turtle is definitely not in the employee manual.
Senko hears them screaming. He doesn’t care. He’s enjoying the ride. Sea turtles can hit close to 30 mph. Eventually the turtle returns to the boat. With one powerful flap of its flippers, it rids itself of its hitcher.
“Right at that moment I say to my parents, ‘That was awesome! I want to study these things!’” Senko says. “Ever since then I’ve been obsessed with sea turtles.”
Flash forward a few decades.
Senko is now a marine biologist and conservation scientist at Arizona State University. Most scientists spend their careers working on one problem, or part of a problem, or a tiny part of a problem. Senko is working on about 10 problems at once. Saving sea turtles is job one, but that’s related to sustainable fishing, which ties into resilient coastal communities. Engineering transformative fishing gear and reducing plastic trash in the oceans are other parts of his puzzle.
“Fishing gear is the greatest threat to sea turtles worldwide,” Senko says. “Sea turtles are vital for the health of the world’s oceans. They perform fundamental roles in ocean ecosystems, many of which are not fulfilled by other species. And humans need healthy oceans to survive and thrive.”
In the Sea of Cortez, on a tiny remote island lost in time and inhabited by one fishing family, all the strands of Senko’s work come together.
It’s about solving problems
He grew up on the coast of Connecticut on Long Island Sound. His father had him out on boats when he was in diapers. He has been fishing since he could hold a rod. He majored in fisheries and wildlife sciences at the University of Connecticut and received his master’s degree in wildlife ecology and conservation from the University of Florida.
He studies sea turtles, and Gainesville is about a 90-minute drive from the Atlantic. Why come to ASU in the middle of the desert, to earn a PhD in biology?
“As scientists, we are great at assessing and identifying problems. We’re awful at solving them,” he explains. “ASU is about solving problems.”
Upon completing his PhD at the most innovative university in the country, he joined ASU’s new School for the Future of Innovation in Society, which works on solving all aspects of wicked problems and the unintended consequences behind new technologies and policies.
Senko’s passion is sea turtles, some of the oldest creatures on Earth. Whatever killed the dinosaurs, turtles survived it. They can live to 100.
The Mexican government banned sea turtle hunting in 1990. Get caught with one — dead or alive — and it’s a nine-year prison sentence. Recovery has been slow, though. Sea turtles swim right into the fishing nets and drown.
When Senko was working on his PhD in Baja California, he noticed lights put on gill nets to attract fish reduced sea turtle bycatch. Turtles and sharks can see nets and avoid them. As an experiment, he put battery-powered lights on fishing nets. He found a 50% reduction in turtle bycatch and a 95% reduction in shark and ray bycatch. He saw turtles swim up to nets and turn around.
But batteries and fishing lights are expensive. Glow sticks, used by commercial fishermen everywhere, are cheaper. But they’re usually tossed into the ocean after one night, adding to the global plastic problem.