Good News and Bad News for Turtle Lovers Comes from the Pacific 2019

A commentary by Dan Southerland
Lihue, Hawaii
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sea-turtle.jpg Rangers stand near a green turtle heading back to the sea after laying eggs at a beach on Thameehla Island in Myanmar, Oct. 19, 2018.

While turtle populations around the world have been declining steadily, here’s good news from the Pacific.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), recent data suggest that some of the world’s endangered green sea turtles’ primary nesting locations are stabilizing.

Green turtles nest in more than 80 countries and inhabit coastal waters in more than 140 countries.

In NOAA’s Pacific Islands Region, green sea turtles’ nesting occurs in Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI).

But nature inevitably takes a toll: Green sea turtles and endangered Hawaiian monk seals suffered heavily in early October of last year when a hurricane struck East Island in northwestern Hawaii.

East Island, a small strip of sand among the French Frigate Shoals, served as a major nesting ground for green sea turtles.

When Hurricane Walaka struck, it scattered rocks and sand, and the island disappeared under the water.

Seven researchers studying seals and green sea turtles had to be evacuated.

It’s still not clear how many green sea turtles were able to escape.

Meanwhile, in East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, well-organized criminal gangs seeking high profits are involved in the trafficking of turtles.

Turtles are endangered not only in Asia but in many other parts of the world.

One small example suffices to illustrate this: Early this month, a Philadelphia man pleaded guilty to trafficking in protected turtles, according to the Associated Press.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania said that David Sommers admitted to sending a package to Canada in 2014 containing 11 diamondback terrapin hatchlings.

The demand side

Michael Lau, senior head of the program for local biodiversity and regional wetlands at the World Wildlife Fund in Hong Kong reported three years ago that the demand for sea turtles among consumers in China was rising.

A number of sea turtles were also getting caught and accidentally drowned in fishing boat nets, and Chinese consumers have long sought the turtles for their meat and eggs.

But Hawaii might now offer a model for how to protect green sea turtles.

Though the turtles are revered by some in Hawaii who consider them to be “aumakua,” a guardian spirit or protective deity, it should also be noted that other Hawaiians value the turtles for their meat and skin and not necessarily for their purported spiritual connections.

Success in protecting the turtles on Hawaii’s island of Kauai is based on legal protections plus public awareness and the advocacy work of nonprofit organizations.

Both federal and state laws here protect wild marine mammals and turtles from “harassment.”

In Kauai, this means approaching them no closer than 20 feet and doing nothing that disrupts their behavior as they rest on beaches or rocks or in sea caves.

The turtles eat plants growing on rocks. and when well-protected can live for decades.

Large adults can weigh between 240 and 420 pounds and are capable of swimming long distances.

But the turtles can be extremely sensitive to artificial light.

On Feb. 12, two Hawaiian environmental groups sued to block the replacement of some 4,800 streetlight fixtures across Maui County with LED fixtures that threatened to either kill or injure imperiled seabirds and sea turtles.

Why we should care about turtles

Turtles are among the most threatened animals on earth, experts say.

More than 300 species are threatened with extinction, according to internationally recognized Red List criteria.

If current trends continue, all seven species of sea turtles could face extinction.

Aside from the sea turtles, the other six species are flatbacks, hawksbills, Kemp’s ridleys, leatherbacks, loggerheads, and olive ridleys.

The Sea Turtle Conservancy in Gainesville, Florida, says that the extinction of sea turtles could have “major ecological effects.”

Sea turtles, and especially green sea turtles, are among the few animals to eat sea grass.

Sea grass beds need to be cut short to enable the grass to grow across the sea floor, and sea turtles perform this service.

Sea grass beds provide breeding and development grounds for many species of fish, shell fish, and crustaceans, according to the Sea Turtle Conservancy. And without sea grass beds, many marine species that humans harvest could be lost.

The impact of human activity on turtles

Turtles and tortoises have survived since the age of the dinosaurs, but the biggest threat to them in recent years has become the intervention of humans.

Industrial development around the world has contributed to the possible extinction of turtles and tortoises by eliminating their nesting habitats in many places.

Humans also generate various forms of waste that can entangle turtles and tortoises. And some forms of waste, such as plastic, can be inadvertently consumed by them.

Some scientists rank habitat destruction and climate change as the biggest future threats to sea turtles.

Scientists say that while turtles and tortoises have survived 220 million years, their shells no longer ensure their continued survival.

“Shells work great against natural predators, but are no match against humans intent on consuming them,” said Peter Paul van Dijk, co-editor of a report on the 25 most endangered turtles and tortoises.

Seventeen of those most endangered are found in Asia.

In China, the trade has been enormous, with imports of turtle and tortoise products coming not only from Asia but also from as far away as Africa and North America.

Traffickers can make high profits from trading in all species of turtles.

According to a 2011 report, wealthy collectors will pay thousands of dollars on the black market for turtles and tortoises.

The report was produced by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Marine Turtle Specialist Group (MTSG), Conservation International (CI), and the U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

In many parts of the world, turtles are theoretically protected by anti-poaching laws and by an international treaty. But these laws are often poorly enforced.

But in reality, nothing seems to be working.

The group’s report highlights the extent of the trade in turtles’ meat, shells, and eggs, and the fact that it seems to be expanding despite attempts to rein it in.

The report also found that the main regional trade route for whole turtles and turtle derivatives seemed to originate in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

The products were shipped mostly to East Asia, where demand was reported to be on the rise – both Chinese demand for turtle meat and medicine, and Japanese and Taiwanese demand for traditional crafts made of turtle bone.

In 2014, the Indian Ocean Sea Turtle Agreement (IOSEA) group released a report on the “Illegal Take and Trade of Marine Turtles in the IOSEA Region,” which looked at key trends and patterns since 2000.

It highlighted the extent of the trade in meat, shells and eggs.

Countering trafficking by raising awareness

WildAid, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, launched a campaign last year in China aimed at discouraging Chinese purchases of turtle products such as turtles’ meat, skin, and scales.

At the time, a WildAid survey of 1,500 people conducted in five locations in China found that 17 percent of respondents had purchased sea turtle products in the past, and 22 percent expressed an interest in buying more in the future.

Only 57 percent knew that it was illegal to purchase sea turtle products in China.

WildAid released a series of TV messages featuring the popular Chinese actor Liu Ye to raise awareness of the threats to turtles.

The campaign reached nearly 34 million views online and was featured in Chinese state media, according to Steve Blake, WildAid’s China chief representative.

On March 3, which is World Wildlife Day, WildAid plans to release sea turtle messages from the actor Eddie Peng calling on Chinese to avoid purchasing sea turtle products.

Blake said that WildAid is also working on a 75-minute-long film with Eddie Peng on sea turtles that will be broadcast on the video platform Youku, based in Beijing.

And in April, Taiwanese musician and songwriter Jay Chou will be featured in yet another campaign.

Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.


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