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Sea Turtles Bring People and Nations Together
Photo Credit: Earl Possardt/USFWS
by Earl Possardt
Sea turtles, ancient mariners for well over 100 million years, were abundant until humans began plying the seas. All seven sea turtle species are now listed under the Endangered Species Act as either endangered or threatened. Two species, the Kemp’s ridley and the flatback, are restricted to the Gulf of Mexico/ Eastern U.S. Atlantic Coast and the North Coast of Australia, respectively. The other five – loggerheads, hawksbills, olive ridleys, greens, and leatherbacks – are circumglobal in distribution, with populations of each species found in Earth’s three major oceans.
An example of the severe threats to sea turtles can be found in the East Pacific leatherback population. As recently as the mid-1980s, it was considered the world’s largest leatherback nesting population, with more than 150,000 nests deposited on Mexico’s Pacific coast each year. By the 1990s, however, it was in dramatic decline. In some recent years, fewer than 1,000 nests were documented annually on these beaches. Years of excessive exploitation of eggs and nesting females, combined with the incidental take of leatherbacks by drift net1 fisheries in the North Pacific, coastal gill nets2, and longline fisheries3, contributed to the crash of this population.
Loggerhead turtles, once considered a secure species, are now in trouble globally. Seven of the nine nesting populations are declining, including the two largest populations, which account for 80 percent of the world’s loggerheads. Unsustainable mortality from longline fisheries by-catch is a likely cause, but illegal harvest of Cape Verde (off the western coast of Africa) nesting females for meat threatens to extirpate the third or fourth largest loggerhead population in the world. Other sea turtle species face similar threats. Thousands of olive ridleys from arribada4 populations in India face death annually from incidental capture and drowning by coastal trawlers and gill nets, and many green turtle population throughout the world are overexploited for subsistence and commercial purposes.
Photo Credit: Roldan Valverde/SELU
For some species, there is good news. The Kemp’s ridley turtle is showing a remarkable recovery from its recorded low of 702 nests in 1985 to almost 21,000 nests in the 2009 nesting season, demonstrating the success of a 30-year conservation partnership between Mexico and the United States. And several major hawksbill nesting populations in the Caribbean are increasing, reflecting three decades or more of sustained conservation efforts and a 1995 ban on the international trade in tortoise shell.
In recognition of the global threats to sea turtles, their complex life cycle and migratory nature, and the necessity for international cooperation and U.S. leadership to conserve them, Congress passed the Marine Turtle Conservation Act of 2004. The Marine Turtle Conservation Fund created by the act and administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides grants to foreign countries for conserving nesting sea turtles and their habitats. Since the program’s inception, the Wildlife Without Borders Marine Turtle Conservation Fund (WWB-MTCF) has awarded 133 grants totaling more than $4,626,000 to more than 30 countries.
Can the WWB-MTCF really make a difference, or is it just a drop in an ocean already expanding from global climate change, inundating beaches, exacerbating coral reef bleaching, changing hatchling sex ratios, and perhaps changing currents that hatchlings rely on for dispersal to developmental habitats? I can’t see beyond the climate change horizon, but I know we are making a difference by ensuring that some populations will survive to test their adaptive capacity. We are not only working to head off catastrophes in the short term, we are raising the world’s awareness of global environmental threats and helping to build community and institutional capacity for conservation.
Photo Credit: Caribbean Conservation Corporation
The WWB-MTCF has vastly improved efforts to save the West Africa leatherback nesting population, one of the two largest remaining leatherback populations in the world. It supports activities for this population from its epicenter in Gabon north through Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, and south through Congo and Angola. The WWB-MTCF also provides the primary support for recovering the largest former hawksbill nesting population in the wider Caribbean at Chiriqui Beach, Panama. This effort, led by the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, is already showing progress. Since the program’s inception in 2004, hawksbill nesting has increased and more of the nesting females are surviving. There are many more equally compelling projects being supported by WWB-MTCF in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Western Hemisphere.
For me, one project illustrates, in both a symbolic and a personal way, the act of bringing people and nations together for marine turtle conservation. In 1968, U.S. Marines faced Viet Cong (V.C.) and North Vietnamese Army soldiers as foes in the then northern province of Quang Tri, South Vietnam. Wildlife was the last thing on the minds of the Marines, although they commonly encountered tigers, primates, snakes, and sambar (similar to an elk or very large deer) in the jungles and grassland savannahs south of the Demilitarized Zone. At the time, unknown to a least the Marines, a significant leatherback colony nested along Vietnam’s coast southward from Quang Tri Province. The beaches were pristine in spite of the war, although neither one particular 15-year-old Viet Cong nor this 20-year-old Marine he would later meet were thinking about beaches or conserving sea turtles. As the years passed and the war ended, overexploitation of eggs and adults reduced that leatherback population to just a few nesting females.
Photo Credit: USFWS
Fast forward to 2006. Fate and a meeting of the Indian Ocean Southeast Asia Marine Turtle Agreement in Oman brought me together with Ms. Bui Thi Thu Hien, a Vietnamese biologist working for IUCN-VN. We hatched a plan to develop a WWB-MTCF proposal for restoring Vietnam’s leatherback populations. Even though the population may be past the point of recovery, we believed the community-based activities that would develop around the remnant leatherbacks would galvanize local conservation programs, benefiting other species that suffered from by-catch in near-shore waters. In any case, this nesting leatherback population was doomed without intervention. In 2007, the project was funded by WWB-MTCF, and I returned to Vietnam for the first time in 40 years to meet with the project personnel. At my first meeting in Quang Tri, I met Vice Director Hoang Dinh Lien of the Quang Tri Department of Fisheries, who was heading up field implementation of the leatherback project. When our interpreter explained to him that I had "lived" in Quang Tri Province for about a year in 1968, Mr. Lien offered a handshake and said with a smile, "Oh, me V.C." And so began a partnership and a friendship, fostered by a shared hope for Vietnam’s leatherbacks and other sea turtles.
1 Drift nets consist of a number of gillnets strung together. They are left free to drift with the current, usually near the surface or not far below.
2 A gillnet is a net used to snare fish that try to swim into deliberately sized mesh openings but are unable to squeeze through.
3 Longline fishing is a commercial technique that uses a long line, called the main line, with baited hooks attached at intervals by means of branch lines called "snoods." A snood is a short length of line attached to the main line by a clip or swivel, with the hook at the other end. Lines can extend for miles and include thousands of hooks. Tuna, sharks, swordfish, and halibut are some of the species most commonly targeted.
4 "Arribada" is Spanish for "arrival." In this context, it refers to the synchronous nesting of up to tens of thousands of females on several kilometers of nesting beach within hours or over the course of a few days.
Earl Possardt, Program Office for the Marine Turtle Conservation Fund in the FWS Division of International Conservation, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the Marine Turtle Conservation Fund, visit: www.fws.gov/international/DIC/species/marine_turtles/marine_turtle.html
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