Let’s help our turtles

OUT of the seven species of turtles in the world, four species are common in Fiji’s water, making its conservation efforts pivotal.

According to the World Wildlife Fund Pacific, the four species of turtles found in Fiji are also on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

The four species, according to WWF Pacific, are the hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricate), the Pacific leatherback (Dermochelys Coriacea) turtles which are now critically endangered with the loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and green (Chelonia mydas) turtles listed as endangered.

A major threat for turtles in Fiji not only includes illegal, unsustainable harvesting, accidental capture, but also turtles, like humans, are not immune to the impacts of climate change.

WWF Pacific conservation director Francis Areki said studies indicated beach erosion, through sea level rise, could destroy nesting sites.

“Adding to this is that warmer condition of beaches through global warming and the warming of the turtle nesting sites then affects the sex of hatchlings and so in this case, a decrease in breeding grounds and its population” he said.

WWF studies have documented how sea turtles are affected by climate change and the best ways to reduce their vulnerability to changing environmental conditions.

According to WWF Pacific sustainable fisheries and seafood program manager Duncan Williams turtles were also pressured by the global industrial fishing fleets as they are caught incidentally by long line and purse seine fishing vessels. Although it is difficult to put an exact figure on the number of turtle deaths caused annually by the pelagic offshore fishing industry because of a significant lack of available data globally, studies show conservative estimate turtle mortality to be in the tens of thousands.

He said there were various tools and best practices available to mitigate or reduce levels of turtle mortality in tuna fisheries, however, there was an urgent need to better understand how effective the tools worked either in isolation or as part of a suite of approaches in order to select the most appropriate management intervention that could reduce turtle by catch and at the same time promote sustainable fishing.

On average, WWF Pacific says, turtles lay 100 eggs for each nest with a hatchling rate of around 90 per cent where only one hatchling makes it into adulthood.

Despite the challenges, WWF says turtle conservation in Fiji has made tremendous strides over the years.

There is a 10-year turtle moratorium on the harvesting of this ancient migratory species in place. It ends this year.

WWF Pacific’s coastal fisheries/marine species officer Laitia Tamata Jr says a turtle monitoring expedition in 2014 by the University of the South Pacific and the Fiji National University showed that back then the foraging (feeding) and nesting numbers of turtles had increased since 2011.

Mamanuca Environment Society project manager Marica Vakacola said the organisation was also engaged in turtle conservation project particularly at this period when turtles come to nest.

“Now we are in the hatching season and it is a crucial time for the turtle population,” she said.

“We urge the general public not to disturb the turtles by picking them up as they need to crawl naturally down the beach for more chances of female turtles coming back to the nest on the same beach.

“Last week hatchlings were seen crawling and finding their way to the ocean at Namotu. There will be more encounters in the next few months and we look forward to surveying these nesting beaches.”

She said the organisation’s community and resort awareness work covered turtle conservation and the team was proud to say that they had reached all levels of education from preschool, primary, secondary to adults, church groups, resort staff members and visitors and locals.

“The community and resort promote the protection of these endangered marine species,” she said.

“We are implementing ongoing sustainable practices in promoting solid waste management, beach clean-up and reforestation of eroded coastal grounds in communities, resorts and uninhabited islands that are outlined in the Mamanuca Seaturtle Best Practises and Policies funded by UNDP Small Grant Program.”

Kula WILD Adventure Park near Sigatoka plays an important role as it provides free hands-on education program for Fiji’s schoolchildren.

“We believe that this is the best way to spread the turtle conservation awareness and teach our children about the dangers of turtle extinctions. If we do not correct our habits like improperly discarding our rubbish like plastic bags which end up in our waterways,” Kula WILD Adventure Park director Ramesh Chand said.

“The plastic bags we use today can harm a turtle in the future. Our hawksbill sea turtles are held in a reef pool containing over 8000 gallons of salt water with a 1.5 horse power electric pump and a 180kg sand filtering system continuously running 24 hours a day.

“About 50 per cent of the water is changed every four weeks and all the nutrients needed by the turtles for proper growth is provided. During the last 20 years over 30 baby turtles have been raised at Kula and have been released into the wild near the areas they had hatched.”

He said a few turtles had been tagged by the Fisheries Department.

“Sea turtles are in danger of extinction due to many reasons and almost all of them are related to humans. Hawksbill turtle numbers have declined to an extent which necessitated the need to include it on the IUCN endangered list,” he said.

“The turtles we have at the park are from Treasure Island and we get three to five baby turtles at a time. We raise them to about 10 to 15 inches in carapace (shell) length. The turtles are then transferred back to Treasure Island by resort staff and released back into the reefs around the island.”

To date, according to WWF Pacific, there are around 80 monitoring campaigns for turtle protection in Macuata, Bua, Lomaiviti and Serua provinces.

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