Quick action by the Department of Fisheries and police saved the lives of three female green turtles which were to be sold to middleman on an island in Tailevu yesterday.
Despite warnings from government to stop killing turtles in Fiji, the authorities were tipped off by villagers on Wednesday afternoon regarding the incident.
Department of Fisheries technical officer Nausori, Aporosa Rabo said upon arriving at the island they found six turtles illegally caught by a fisherman.
"After confiscating three, the team returned to find out that the other three were missing and the villagers got confrontational," Mr Rabo said.
The three turtles confiscated were then brought to the fisheries office in Nausori where they were tagged and later released at the Nasese foreshore.
He said considering the equipment found on the island, he believed some villagers had been illegally catching turtle for some time.
Mr Rabo said catching of turtles in Fiji was now a major concern following an increase in the demand for its meat.
"Catching of turtles is prohibited under the Fisheries Act because it is declared an endangered species," he said.
Mr Rabo says Fiji is a member of the Convention of the International Trade of Endangered Species which as a result strictly prohibits the catching and harvesting of turtles.
The ban on catching turtles in Fiji was placed on April 2008 and will be lifted in December 2018 following assessments by the ministry.
He said the street value of the confiscated turtles was more than $2000 and despite being aware of the repercussions of catching turtles, villagers continued to do it.
"In Fiji around 100 to 200 turtles are killed each year which is very intense and sold as a source of income."
Mr Rabo said catching and killing of turtles should immediately stop in Fiji because they were under threat of extinction and should be preserved for future generations.
"If someone gets caught catching turtles a fine of $20,000 applies or they face imprisonment of up to five years or both," he said.
Mr Rabo outlined that the Ministry of Fisheries is setting up marine protected areas, increasing awareness on the impact of turtle catching and restocking depleted marine areas.
Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund South Pacific Program Office has applauded the action of the Department of Fisheries in rescuing the turtles yesterday.
Monitoring and Evaluation Officer Merewalesi Laveti said the enforcement of laws governing the protection of turtles was an important way of safeguarding marine turtle population.
"In fact, we need to step up on enforcement as a means of improving awareness and compliance with existing laws that were created to protect turtles because of the declining numbers," Ms Laveti said.
She said turtles were creatures that had existed since the Jurassic era but were being forced into extinction because of threats such as over-exploitation.
"We are calling on all fishermen, coastal dwellers, villagers and members of the Fiji public to continue to support, protect and help in the conservation of our remaining turtle population as they play a major ecological role in our marine ecosystem and are iconic to our iTaukei culture," Ms Laveti said.
Police are investigating the incident.
* Editorial Comment: PAGE 8