H.R. 3378 The Marine Turtle Conservation Act

Marshall Jones


March 25, 2004

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to present the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (Service) views on H.R. 3378, the Marine Turtle Conservation Act of 2003. The Service appreciates the continued interest and commitment by you and the Ranking Member, Mr. Pallone, in efforts to conserve endangered species throughout the world.

The Administration supports H.R. 3378, which addresses some of the most urgent conservation issues regarding marine turtles. As discussed in more detail below, however, the Administration has some concerns with the legislation, and we recommend that the legislation be amended to address those concerns. At the outset, we must note that funding for such a program is not currently in the Administration’s fiscal year 2005 budget request.

As a Party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and a major consumer of species covered by the Convention, the U.S. shares responsibility for supporting and implementing measures to provide for the conservation of endangered and threatened species both at home and abroad. The Service currently administers several successful species conservation programs: the African Elephant Conservation Act, the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act, the Asian Elephant Conservation Act, the Great Apes Conservation Act and the Neotropical Migratory Bird Act. These programs are included within the Multinational Species Conservation fund which supports on-the-ground protection, research, and education efforts. To date, the Service has funded 559 conservation grants in 46 countries. Approximately $25 million in funds appropriated by the U.S. Congress have leveraged more than $80 million in matching and in-kind contributions from about 500 partner organizations.

The Service works closely with foreign governments and local and international conservation organizations to identify and support high-priority actions to protect these species and their habitats. Our experience has shown that relatively modest sums, if judiciously applied to well-designed and implemented projects, can leverage considerable resources and, just as importantly, the interest of communities, governments, and the world. As a direct result of funds made available by the Multinational Species Conservation Acts, in-country wildlife researchers and managers are more effectively protecting their country’s wildlife and habitat resources. Working with our international partners, we see clear signs of the effectiveness of our combined efforts. The lessons we learn encourage optimism and help point the way to increased action in a world of increasing threats to wildlife.

Marine turtles disperse and migrate throughout the world’s oceans, and as a result, they are important indicators of coastal and marine environmental health on local, regional and global scales. Less than 60 years ago, marine turtles were abundant, and widespread nesting on beaches was common. Today however, six of the seven marine turtle species -- the Kemp’s ridley, the Olive ridley, the Loggerhead, the Leatherback, the Hawksbill, and the Green turtle -- are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). All seven species are included in Appendix 1 of CITES. Overall, nesting populations for most species have declined worldwide with a few exceptions. Surveys of the Kemp’s ridley turtles on a nesting beach in northeastern Mexico showed a drop from more than 40,000 nesting females estimated on one day in 1947 to fewer than 270 nesting females for the entire nesting season in 1985. Fortunately, long-term nest protection measures implemented in Mexico in the late 1960s and the implementation of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) requirements in the 1990s has reversed this trend and approximately 3000 females nested in 2003. Data presented by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) indicates the global population of Leatherbacks has decreased by 78 percent in 14 years, and the global population of Green turtles has decreased by more than 50 percent.

Threats facing marine turtles include harvesting of eggs, poaching, trade in turtle parts and loss of habitat. In many cultures, people still harvest marine turtles and their eggs for food. Most countries have outlawed the killing of turtles and the taking of eggs, but resources for enforcement are inadequate. Marine turtle poaching continues to be far too frequent and turtle eggs can often be found for sale in foreign markets. Buying and selling turtle products within the United States is strictly prohibited by law, but turtle shell jewelry and souvenirs are still commonly seized by customs officials from tourists returning from the Caribbean.

Habitat loss is another critical threat to the survival of marine turtles. Coastal areas are rapidly being developed thereby reducing marine turtle nesting sites and feeding areas. Lights from coastal developments discourage female turtles from nesting and cause hatchlings to become disoriented as they are drawn to artificial light. Hatchlings wander inland rather than toward the sea and die of dehydration or are eaten by land animals. Degradation and loss of seagrass beds and other aquatic plants upon which the green turtles depend has resulted in the loss of foraging and grazing areas.

To truly protect marine turtles around the world, many different countries and cultures must cooperate and share responsibility. This reality has been recognized by many countries as evidenced by the recent development and ratification of two international agreements specifically addressing marine turtle conservation: the Inter-American Convention (IAC) for the Protection and Conservation of Marine Turtles and the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asian Marine Turtle Agreement (IOSEA). The United States is a signatory to both of these international agreements. Countries participating in IOSEA have already developed an action plan that identifies the many conservation needs in the Indian Ocean and the Southeast Asian region. The IAC will address the same issues for the Western Hemisphere nesting populations. In addition, WIDECAST, an organization to foster wider Caribbean marine turtle conservation that evolved out of the Cartagena Convention, has coordinated an extensive network of country coordinators throughout the Caribbean and has facilitated the development of 11 country action plans. The Marine Turtle Specialist Group of IUCN has also developed a global action plan for marine turtle conservation.

In addition, there are several programs administered by the Service and NOAA-Fisheries that are designed to address threats facing marine turtles. For example, in 2003, the Service’s Wildlife Without Borders program awarded grants that funded projects in Latin America and the Caribbean to manage and conserve hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley turtles.

H.R. 3378 would further assist in the recovery and protection efforts by supporting and providing financial resources for projects designed to conserve marine turtles and their nesting habitat in foreign countries and by addressing threats to marine turtles. Given that H.R. 3378 draws on language used in the other Multinational Species Conservation Acts, it too would serve as a flexible funding source for global turtle conservation activities. In view of the many plans developed, or under development, that identify needed recovery actions for marine turtle populations throughout the world, H.R. 3378 would provide a dedicated funding source for comprehensive, global coordination and collaboration for these individual efforts in developing countries where resources and capacity are limited.

Implementation of the Marine Turtle Conservation Act by the Service would be based on the pattern established in the previous Multinational Species Conservation Act initiatives. The Service has designed a streamlined process that allows for timely approval of projects, and quick action in emergency situations. Each project funded is a cooperative effort with foreign governments, non-governmental organizations, or private sector entities. No in-country project is approved unless it has the full support of in-country government officials, and has been identified as a project that will address the country’s conservation priorities.

Marine turtles are model "flagship species" for both local and international coastal conservation. Because marine turtles circumnavigate the world’s oceans to reach their nesting beaches, their conservation must be addressed through global efforts. By focusing on these species and their habitats, it is likely that ecologically critical areas of the planet will be considered and managed more adequately. We welcome the opportunity to expand our cooperation and work with other countries and partners to conserve the world’s magnificent marine turtles.

As noted above, however, the Administration does have some concerns with the legislation. Specifically, the Administration does not generally support legislative provisions, such as those found in Section 5, that provide investment authority to fund program activities as this could limit the ability of the President to determine spending based on current priorities and budgets. Moreover, Section 8, which requires the Secretary to provide a report to Congress which should contain, among other things, recommendations as to how the Act could be improved, possibly infringes upon the President’s discretion to recommend legislation under the Recommendations Clause of the Constitution. We recommend that these specific provisions be removed from the legislation.

In closing Mr. Chairman, we would like to reiterate our support of this legislation. The Service expects that H.R. 3378 would bolster and increase the recovery efforts for marine turtles. H.R. 3378, as with the other Multinational Species Conservation programs would serve as a catalyst for cooperative efforts among the governments of the world, non-governmental organizations and the private sector to work together for a common goal, the conservation and continued existence of species.

We look forward to working with the Members of the Subcommittee regarding H.R. 3378. I would be happy to answer any questions.