Urgent Action Needed for Sea Turtle Conservation in Fiji

Posted on 13 September 2023
A green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) cruises along the shallow coastal waters surrounding Yakuvewaswa Island. Green sea turtles are classified as as 'Endangered' by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
© WWF-Pacific / Tom Veirus
Suva, Fiji – New preliminary research findings highlight persistent and alarming rate of ongoing sea turtle harvesting which directly contradicts the well-defined regulations prohibiting this practice. A troubling trend that warrants immediate attention.
The findings identified major harvesting hotspots in the provinces of Lomaiviti, Macuata, Kadavu, and Bua. The turtle, also known as vonu or ika bula, holds significance within Fiji's customary rituals and events involving chiefs, such as for their installation ceremonies, weddings and funerals.
The preliminary survey results point to the need to re-assess current legislation, strengthen collaboration and partnerships amongst management stakeholders and communities, strengthen enforcement capacity and improve awareness.
The study, titled Pacific-European Union Marine Partnership (PEUMP) Programme By-catch and Integrated Ecosystem Management Initiative: Survey of Marine Turtle Use by Communities in Fiji, investigated the complex relationship between sea turtles and Fijian communities to help address information gaps on their harvest, trade and use in Fiji that would be of interest to decision makers, natural resource managers, conservationists, local community members, and conservation-focused non-government organisations, both at national and regional level.
The comprehensive study was conducted by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), in collaboration with the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), through the SPREP implemented By-catch and Integrated Ecosystem Management (BIEM) Initiative of the PEUMP programme funded by the European Union (EU) and the Government of Sweden and it provides much needed insights into the patterns of use and trade of sea turtles in Fiji.
The research was conducted by the WWF-Pacific in collaboration with SPREP, WWF-Australia, WWF-Pacific and the WWF-Coral Triangle Programme and provides much needed insights into the patterns of use and trade of sea turtles in Fiji.
Five of seven species of endangered sea turtles including green turtle, the critically endangered hawksbill turtle, loggerhead turtle, olive ridley turtle and leatherback turtle are found nesting, migrating or foraging across the coastal and oceanic waters of the Fijian archipelago. Green sea turtles were found to be more frequently harvested than hawksbills.
Sea turtles are considered a valuable asset categorised under i yau, which encompasses valuable possessions like the tabua (sperm whale tooth), masi (cloth woven from mulberry tree bark), and ibe (reed-woven mats). This underscores the esteemed status of turtles as not only sacred articles but also as exceptional meat designated for a select few individuals within traditional communities. However, the pursuit of turtle meat has become more prevalent, even for occasions that deviate from traditional practices.
According to the Programme Manager of WWF-Pacific Sustainable Fisheries and Seafood Programme, Duncan Williams, it is clear that sea turtles are still being harvested.
“While the results from the surveys are still preliminary, we can already determine that sea turtles are targeted on purpose (and at night) than caught incidentally and are targeted consistently year-round,” said Williams.  
“Approximately 2,420 turtles were calculated to have been harvested within the past 12 months, as reported by 293 respondents (24.7%) who were surveyed across 136 villages spanning the 10 provinces.”
He added, “Noting there are hundreds of villages in Fiji, this estimated figure should raise significant concern that harvesting of sea turtles is likely far greater and likely having an impact on Fiji turtle populations. Given the limited nesting population of hawksbills within Fiji, the extent of harvesting impacting this critically endangered species is profoundly concerning.”
The research project used WWF Turtle Use Project community-based field surveys to assess the drivers and motivations of sea turtle use and trade, including harvest levels, and fishing methods used by local fishers and community members in Fiji.
The research was conducted in 136 villages located in 10 coastal provinces across Fiji with surveys being carried out between March 2021 and early December 2021 and late March of 2022 by WWF-Pacific with approximately 1,186 interviews conducted.
These findings have been presented to partners (communities, management authorities, other NGOs, scientists, academics, resource managers, and conservation practitioners) to try to address some of the issues emerging from the study.
“Marine turtles are known as ‘keystone species’ and play a vital role in maintaining the health of our reefs and oceans. They are also a migratory species and therefore belong to all Pacific countries and territories. That means that it is the responsibility of governments and communities at national levels to ensure that mechanisms are in place, including government policies and enforcement and traditional controls, to protect and sustainably manage these iconic species. We are pleased to have supported this survey and report findings to ensure that partners, communities and the Fiji government are informed on the true status of marine turtles. All concerned should accept these findings as a wake-up call and ensure that measures are in place to strengthen protection for these migratory species,” said SPREP’s Director of Island Ecosystems, Mr Stuart Chape.
SPREP is leading Key Result Area 5 of the PEUMP programme, the BIEM Initiative, to support the governments of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu in the sustainable management of coastal and marine biodiversity.
Editor’s Note:
The BIEM Initiative consists of eight integrated areas consisting of marine spatial planning; integrated ‘ridge to reef’ ecosystem strategies and coastal zone management planning; development and integration of climate change adaptation strategies into coastal community plans; assessment of bycatch of endangered species and extinction risk; development and implementation of bycatch mitigation strategies; capacity development through research grants to citizens of Pacific island countries; support for community monitoring and protection of endangered species; and capacity development for Non-Detrimental Finding assessments.
For more information:
Ravai Vafo’ou, Communications Officer, WWF-Pacific; Phone: +679 331 5533; Email: rvafoou@wwfpacific.org
About WWF
WWF is one of the world’s largest and most respected independent conservation organizations, with over 5 million supporters and a global network active in over 100 countries.  WWF's mission is to stop the degradation of the earth's natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature, by conserving the world's biological diversity, ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable, and promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption. More information: panda.org
The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) is the premiere intergovernmental regional environmental organisation of the Pacific, with 21 Pacific island Members and five metropolitan Members.  SPREP’s mandate is to promote cooperation in the Pacific region and provide assistance in order to protect and improve its environment and to ensure sustainable development for present and future generations.  SPREP’s core priorities are Climate Change Resilience, Ecosystem and Biodiversity Protection, Environmental Governance, and Waste Management and Pollution Control.  It is guided by its vision for the future: “A resilient Pacific environment, sustaining our livelihoods and natural heritage in harmony with our cultures.”  For more please visit www.sprep.org
A green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) cruises along the shallow coastal waters surrounding Yakuvewaswa Island. Green sea turtles are classified as as 'Endangered' by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
© WWF-Pacific / Tom Veirus Enlarge
WWF-Pacific volunteer, Ledua Turaga interviewing a community member in Kadavu for the Trade & Usage survey.
© WWF-Pacific / Fredrica Nagan Enlarge
WWF-Pacific volunteer Fredrica Nagan interviewing a youth in Kadavu for the Trade & usage survey.
© WWF-Pacific / Ledua Turaga Enlarge
WWF-Pacific volunteer, Una Vuli carrying out an interview in Yadua village, Bua on the Trade & Usage survey.
© WWF-Pacific / Laisani Tikomaiyaroi Enlarge