Why save leatherbacks?

Weekender
CONSERVATION

By WENCESLAUS MAGUN
SEA turtles are a keystone or flagship species. They are a critical component of the marine environment.
A keystone species plays an important role in the ecosystem by being a key feature in the functioning of the ecosystem. If the keystone species is removed it will have an adverse effect on other parts of the ecosystem.
Saving keystone species helps prevent ecosystems from collapsing.
Killing and eating critically endangered leatherback sea turtles or harvesting their eggs therefore contributes to the decline and demise of this unique prehistoric gentle giant hence the destruction of our oceans. The world’s oceans are in a state of decline.
Populations of sea turtles, sharks and whales are remnant compared to historical accounts of abundance. Fisheries worldwide are also over-fished or in states of collapse.
Marine turtles have lived in the oceans for a long time. They are an integral part of the traditional cultures of many coastal indigenous peoples throughout the world. The decline of leatherbacks and other sea turtles has also affected the food source of the local people. It has also threatened their cultural heritage, hampered their economic gains and education and entertainment opportunities.
PNG has been a very fortunate country to be a perfect host of six of the seven species of marine turtle that exist globally. These turtles have been very important links traditionally and culturally for most of the 13 maritime provinces. The green (Chelonia mydas), hawksbill (Eremochelys imbricata) and the leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) sea turtles have very significant traditional importance through spiritual, ceremonial and also medicinal values.
Many coastal communities in PNG have very special relationships with marine turtles and even legends are told to this day. This is true for Karkum, Mur, Yamai, Lalok, Male, Kokombar and Bom-Sagar people in Madang based on our baseline studies. They believe they have originated from either the leatherbacks, green or hawksbill turtles.
The Mur people have a ritual which they practise to call the leatherback sea turtles to come so they can kill them and share the protein with inland villagers for taro. The same for the Kokombar people in Bogia District. In addition, Yamai villagers have a traditional song that imitates the leatherback sea turtle coming to nest at their beach.
There is similar folklore in Karkum, Yadigam, Tokain, Lalok, Male, and Bom-Sagar.
Marine turtles spend most of their lives at sea, but must return to land to lay their eggs.
Turtles are often highly migratory – nesting beaches may be up to 6,000 miles from their feeding grounds.
The waters and beaches of the Western Pacific are important nesting beaches, feeding areas and nurseries for leatherbacks, hawksbills, green and loggerhead turtles. Beaches of Indonesia, PNG and Solomon Islands support the largest remaining Western Pacific leatherback sea turtle populations.
Leatherback sea turtles are globally and regionally important shared species as indicated by satellite tracking data showing migration routes through these countries and on their way to feeding grounds around New Zealand, New Caledonea, the northern tip of Australia, Gulf of Mexico and the United States.
Green turtles have also been tracked from the Solomon Islands to Australia and PNG. Key nesting areas for leatherbacks in PNG include the Huon coast, which is situated very close to Lae, an industrial city in Morobe, with sporadic sites in Madang, New Britain, Central, Milne Bay, New Ireland and the Autonomous Region of Bougainville.
Leatherbacks that nest on these beaches migrate to as far as the west coast of the United States, 6,000 miles away, Gulf of Mexico, New Caledonia, New Zealand and Australia to forage for jellyfish.
These turtles are important culturally, economically, educationally, spiritually and nutritionally for the peoples of the Pacific and Indonesia, however they face threats from natural and human impacts. Some species like the Western Pacific leatherbacks are being pushed to the verge of extinction.
All marine turtle species are experiencing serious threats to their survival. The main threats are pollution-related.
The Western Pacific leatherback’s population has declined more than 90 per cent in the past 20 years due to industrial fishing on the high seas and the harvesting of nesting adults and eggs on beaches. The disposal of human waste and other pollutants such as plastic bags pose a very serious threat to the nesting females. Other sources of pollution include land-based pollution from major agricultural developments which use chemicals.
These are then washed into the sea and also cause major disturbance to the water temperatures. These changes affect important turtle habitats, especially coral reefs, sea grass beds, mangrove forests and nesting beaches.
Other threats include accidental drowning in fishing gear, over-harvesting of turtles and their eggs and predation of eggs and hatchlings by dogs, feral pigs, and goannas.
In PNG the over-harvesting of turtle eggs was never an issue to compare with source of food with other added reasons. However, this has changed in the 20 years where eggs have been sold at the local markets in towns and cities. The need for income generation has forced a lot of communities to divert their traditional value for the uses of turtle eggs from traditionally harvested and managed to sales at the local markets.
There are only a few large nesting populations of the critically endangered leatherback turtles, green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles left in the world, and PNG has only a few major nesting sites to conserve for future generations.
To save the Pacific leatherbacks from extinction they must be protected where they nest, migrate and forage, and PNG’s nesting beaches and coastal waters are an essential part of this conservation puzzle.
Saving leatherback turtles moreover, fulfils the PNG Constitution’s (1974): Goal 4 – “We declare our natural resources and environment to be conserved – wisely used and replenished for the benefit of future generations.”
The Government has also enacted laws to protect the leatherback sea turtles. The leatherback sea turtle is currently the only sea turtle in PNG that is listed as protected fauna under the Fauna (Protection and Control) Act 1966/76 (Kula and George, 1996).
This stipulates that any person who knowingly buys, sells offers or consigns for sale, or has in possession or control of a protected animal is guilty of an offence and the penalty is K500. Any person who takes (kills) a protected animal, in contravention of a condition of a permit is guilty of an offence and the penalty is K40/animal.
Currently PNG’s government policy and regulation with regard to management of marine resources in PNG waters, do not seem to be successfully implemented, and sustainably managed leaving the rich coastline that indigenous communities rely on for sustenance open to exploitation by domestic and foreign interests.
The traditional direct and uncontrolled harvest of nesting adults and eggs is one of the main issues of concern. Due to the wide-ranging threats to the survival of leatherbacks, this practice is no longer sustainable.
In Madang, a number of communities have traditionally opportunistically killed nesting females and harvested eggs from the nests for sustenance. There were no organised sea turtle protection efforts in Madang prior to STRP’s setting up a project there.
The leatherback sea turtles that travel for 6,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean from California and the Gulf of Mexico all the way to PNG since the era of dinosaurs, weighing about 300 kg and can grow to two meters are now at the brink of extinction. Their population has plummeted so much so that it was estimated in 1982 that only 11,500 adult female leatherbacks existed worldwide.
In the Pacific the nesting leatherbacks have declined in an alarming rate (95 per cent) and if nothing is done these special turtles will soon be another extinct creature in the next five to 30 years.
In fact WWF reports show that as few as 2,300 adult female leatherbacks now remain, making the Pacific leatherback the world’s most endangered marine turtle.
Who is responsible for all the damages and loss? We all are. But it’s not too late to make a change to save our oceans.
By saving sea turtles we can help save the entire ocean because we know that turtles are a keystone species, or a critical component of the marine environment.
We know that if we do not save a keystone species, its entire ecosystem processes may collapse around it.

  • Wenceslaus Magun is a freelance writer.

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