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In the turtles' corner

Theresa Fox
Thursday, February 28, 2013

Perplexion and bewilderment often followed by scornful looks usually greet Akuila Were when he traverses the waters of Galoa and Yaqaga islands sharing the turtle gospel.

"They wanted to know if I had gone mad, I mean telling them not to eat turtles was just crazy, they would say because they had been enjoying it all their lives," he said.

"However when we revisit places where our grandfathers used to fish for turtle, the Vatu ni Vonu, we can't spot a turtle because they have all been overfished."

Were, a Class Eight drop-out, understands the strange looks Galoa and Yaqaga islanders cast his way because, like him, they are fisher folk. Fishing and eating turtles is a way of life with its entrenched values and attitudes passed down through time.

"The biggest challenge as a turtle monitor is talking about the technical aspects of a turtle's life and for which we must stop eating them because I know just from experience that turtle numbers have gone down," he said. "It's not like many years back when it was easy to spot a turtle.

"Yet I'm happy that the Fisheries Department, the media and conservation organisations have been spreading awareness about the need to protect turtle numbers and I can see with islanders a shift in their attitudes."

In his fishing lifetime, which roughly spans 20 years, Were has hunted down 60 turtles. Like a thief in the night, he crept up on them and using a hooking contraption, hurled the startled turtle into his outboard motor boat. Other times, he chased the charismatic megafauna in his boat.

"I never fished turtles to sell them. Never! Only for food. Of all food derived from the sea, turtle meat is the most delicious," he said.

"It's the major prize for fisherman from Yaqaga, even turtle blood is a delicacy and we knew which turtles gave the best meat."

Like the story of all of the 20 odd turtle monitors who belong to the Dau ni Vonu program, organised by WWF South Pacific, Were's epiphany, when he realised that unless he helped protect turtles, there wouldn't be any around for future generations, happened at Nakalou Village in Macuata in 2008.

"After that training I stopped fishing for turtles, I still ate it, it was difficult to let go of that habit," Were said.

"Over time I realised that I couldn't stand up with all confidence and convincingly make an argument for the protection of turtles if I still ate them, so I stopped — what do you call it — practise what you preach!"

Yaqaga Island lies along the Labasa-Bua coastline, on Vanua Levu's northwest and is about an hour by 40-horsepower outboard motor boat from the Nakadrudru outpost at Lekutu.

Were said the work of a turtle monitor wasn't easy because he had to face his elders, extended family and relatives and challenge their long-held values and habits.

And when you espouse a value that conflicts with long-standing traditions one is regarded as "viavialevu" or arrogant and sold up to Western concepts and beliefs.

Were however says he tries his best to convince one and all the conservation of turtles is not a foreign ideal at all but very much a human necessity.

He tries to explain to all those he comes into contact with that if turtle populations were to be completely decimated, the ecological consequences will be worst felt by those who live in close kinship with nature and directly depend on marine resources as a primary source of food and income.

Determinedly, Were persists in sharing the ecological importance of turtles and is hopeful about the increasing level of awareness he is witnessing and the positive feedback which he gets.

"I'm happy to see the change. Unlike before when I used to see many (people) rush to the turtles' nesting sites to raid it for eggs but that is changing," said the fisherman cum monitor.

"The battle cannot be won overnight, this is war but we are it approaching it with peace, engagement and "talanoa" and it helps that the Fisheries Department is also carrying the message to the islanders.

"They are also reading and hearing about it in the media so change is slowly happening," an enthusiastic Were says.

"As a turtle monitor that is great news because finally turtles are being given a chance to survive."

The Dau ni Vonu network supports national goals to increase marine turtle populations as reflected by the Fiji Sea Turtle Recovery plan.

* Theresa Fox is the communications officer for WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) South Pacific Program.

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