Turtle conservation in Fiji
Despite this year’s theme ‘Big Cats – Predators under Threat’; for maritime island countries like Fiji, the sea dwelling testudines or chelonians are one of the Pacific region’s significant ‘Big Cats’ that roam the oceans cape, their boundary-less home range , that are also under threat.
To put things into perspective, there are seven species of turtles in the world in which four species are common in Fiji’s waters. It is these four species of turtles that are also on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
These four species are the Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricate) and Pacific Leatherback (Dermochelys Coriacea) turtles which are now critically endangered with the Loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and Green (Chelonia mydas) turtles listed as endangered.
According to WWF, tens of thousands of turtles are lost each year to over harvesting and illegal trade.
In Fiji, illegal and unsustainable harvesting are not the only major threats that these ancient migratory species face, turtles in the Pacific region also face accidental capture and just like humans, are not immune to the impacts of climate change.
“Studies indicate that beach erosion through sea level rise can destroy nesting sites and adding to this is that warmer conditions of beaches through global warming the warming of the turtle’s nesting sites which then affects the sex of hatchlings. So in this case, a decrease in breeding grounds and its population,” highlighted WWF-Pacific’s Conservation Director, Mr. Francis Areki.
To combat this, WWF studies have documented how sea turtles are affected by climate change and the best ways to reduce their vulnerability to changing environmental conditions. WWF has also worked with communities around the world to monitor and protect nesting beach sites, to raising awareness of the threat of sea level rise and the importance of shade for nests.
According to WWF-Pacific’s Sustainable Fisheries and Seafood Programme Manager, Duncan Williams, turtles are also pressured by the global industrial fishing fleets as they are caught incidentally by long line and purse seine fishing vessels and although it is difficult to put an exact figure on the number of turtle deaths caused annually by the pelagic offshore fishing industry due to a significant lack of available data globally, studies conservatively estimate turtle mortality to be in the tens of thousands.
Williams adds there are various tools and best practices available to mitigate or reduce levels of turtle mortality in tuna fisheries however there is an urgent need to better understand how effective these tools work either in isolation or as part of a suite of approaches in order to select the most appropriate management intervention that can reduce turtle bycatch and at the same time promote sustainable fishing.
On average turtles lay 100 eggs for each nest with a hatchling rate of around 90 per cent, where only one hatchling makes it into adulthood. This statistic alone underpins the very urgent need to protect these sea wildlife creatures.
Despite the challenge, turtle conservation in Fiji has taken tremendous strides over the years. Currently, there is a ten year turtle moratorium on the harvesting of this ancient migratory species in place, which ends this year.
According to WWF-Pacific’s Coastal Fisheries/ Marine Species Officer, Laitia Tamata Jnr., a turtle monitoring expedition in 2014 by the University of the South Pacific and the Fiji National University and an analysis of the status of the moratorium, then in its fifth year, showed that back then the foraging (feeding) and nesting numbers of turtles had increased since 2011. However, Tamata Jnr. adds there needs to be another study and analysis done when the moratorium ends this year to gauge the success of the decade long ban.
WWF’s Laitia Tamata Jnr added a ‘big win’ during the moratorium was the increase in the number of eye witness reports from concerned Fiji citizens, both from rural and urban areas, on illegal harvests and or retention of turtles in captivity in some areas, testifying to the effectiveness of the awareness programs by Government and partners during the period.
For WWF-Pacific, this involved training community members in the provinces of Macuata, Bua, Lomaiviti and Serua to collect nesting and foraging (feeding) data to assist in the monitoring of the current phase of the turtle moratorium ban.
To date, there are around 80 turtle monitors campaigning for turtle protection in Macuata, Bua, Lomaivit and Serua provinces.
With the decade long Turtle moratorium to end this year, Tamata Jnr. hopes there is enough awareness to be able to convince our communities when it comes to harvest and consumption that when we don’t manage something, it will be taken away from us.
“While there is insufficient data at this point to represent the whole of Fiji, the social impact of the Moratorium has certainly come up strongly and for a Pacific Island nation this can go a long way,” added Tamata Jnr.