Fri. Feb 23rd, 2024
Keep the turtles out of trouble

Today’s post comes from Amy Tanner, Biology/Ecology Intern at Ontario Parks Southwest Zone.

Before heading out for a fun day of fishing, we all go over our checklists. Have:

But here are two questions that many people don’t ask:

  • What other living things might I accidentally catch while fishing?
  • Do I know how to handle an unexpected catch?

Hooked on your line

Turtles are one of the animals that get accidentally trapped when fishing.

turtle with lure in its mouthPhoto: Ontario Turtle Conservation Center

Ontario has eight species of turtles. Each of them is considered an at-risk species in Canada, meaning their numbers are declining and they are at risk of disappearing from the wild.

These reptiles sometimes swallow fishing hooks and lures thinking they would be a tasty snack. They can also get caught simply swimming in an area where people are fishing.

snapping turtle in water

When turtles swallow hooks, it is often fatal, especially when fishermen cut their line and the hooks remain inside the turtle. Even when they are taken to a medical facility, x-rays and internal surgeries are often required to remove the hooks. The surgeries are usually quite long and are usually very risky for the turtles.

Once the hooks are removed, they will often require rehabilitation time. Surgery, medication and rehabilitation costs for a single turtle could exceed $1,000.

x-ray of hooks in turtlesPhoto: Ontario Turtle Conservation Center

Preserving populations of our at-risk turtle species is extremely important

These species have a very long life expectancy and take many years to reach sexual maturity (in the case of females, it can sometimes take more than 10 years). Turtles face numerous threats daily, including habitat loss, vehicle collisions, natural predation, illegal poaching, recreational fishing, and many more.

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Painted turtle on a log

Unfortunately, due to all of these pressures, less than 2% of eggs and hatchlings reach maturity, meaning it can take decades to naturally replace even a mature turtle that dies. On average, for every 1,400 eggs produced by a female snapping turtle, only one becomes a mature adult.

Generally, this means that the turtle would need to live approximately 58 to 60 years to be replaced in the population by another mature snapping turtle. This is why it is extremely important to save as many turtles as possible, especially the adults.

How to keep turtles out of trouble?

One of the best ways to prevent these types of unexpected catches is Stop fishing in an area if you see a turtle in the water. Wait for the turtle to swim away before continuing to fish.

person fishing

Remember stay in designated or appropriate fishing areas to avoid disturbing sensitive coastal habitats, such as turtle nesting areas and resting areas.

You can also choose to fish with barbless hooks. You can buy barbless hooks or you can make your own by removing the barbs with pliers. If you accidentally hook a turtle, the lack of barbs will make removing the hook or lure much easier for a trained professional.

Remember: Never leave the tackle behind. Remove as much of your tackle as possible safely if your line snags. If you see tackle left behind by others, do your best to remove those as well.

Another important practice is Avoid using fishing tackle that contains lead.. If left behind, this lead enters the food chain in a variety of ways and can persist in the environment with negative effects for hundreds of years. Ingestion of a single lead sinker can cause fatal lead poisoning in turtles and other wildlife if accidentally consumed.

What happens if I hook a turtle?

Turtles can camouflage themselves very well, and sometimes you don’t realize there is a turtle in the area until you accidentally snag it.

If you hook a turtle, keep calm.

First of all, don’t cut the line. It is best to try to capture the turtle, to give it appropriate medical treatment.

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turtle on the shorePhoto: Ron Gould

Minimize wobble as much as possible, as this will reduce the amount of pressure put on the hook. Use your net to catch the turtle and bring it safely to shore.

Try to touch the turtle as little as possible. Turtles can also stretch their necks to surprising lengths that can easily scare unsuspecting people, so keep your hands and body out of their reach. They also have quite sharp claws, which they will use to try to escape the clutches of potential rescuers.

Ontario parks staff holding a turtleIt is essential to alert an Ontario Parks staff member to the situation.

We can help handle the turtle safely, find a suitable container to transport it, keep it in a dark, quiet place to reduce stress, and contact trained professionals who are licensed to handle, transport and care for injured turtles.

If a turtle has swallowed a hook, it will almost certainly need medical attention. If you are not fishing in a provincial park or Ontario Parks staff are not present, call the Ontario Turtle Conservation Center at 705-741-5000 for further guidance.

The Center is located in Peterborough, but has partnerships with many Turtle First Response Centers across Ontario and will be able to direct you to a suitable location to arrange transportation.

Do you want to learn more about how to keep turtles safe?

Visit the Ontario Turtle Conservation Center website for more information on what to do if you have an injured turtle. Additionally, the Government of Ontario maintains a list of licensed wildlife rehabilitators who can provide temporary care for sick, injured or abandoned animals.

turtle with hook in its mouthPhoto: Ontario Turtle Conservation Center

If you’re new to fishing in general, be sure to check out our Learn to Fish program, offered at several Ontario parks.


  • Fish with barbless hooks.
  • Stop fishing if you see a turtle swimming in the area where you are fishing.
  • If you catch a turtle, stay calm.
  • Don’t cut the line
  • Try to roll as little as possible and catch the turtle with a net.
  • Please inform an Ontario Parks staff member as soon as possible for assistance or contact the Ontario Turtle Conservation Center at 705-741-5000.
  • We can all help in the fight to save Ontario’s native turtle species by being conscientious fishermen and helping spread the word!