Heroes in a (Pacific) half-shell

Written by      

Year of the dog, year of the rooster, year of the goldfish—doesn’t every year belong to some creature or other? This year, throughout the South Pacific, it’s the turn of the turtle.

Because turtles are rare in New Zealand waters, we tend not to think much about them. Our image is of wrinkled, rather wise-looking animals, slow and ancient—aquatic tuatara, if you will—creatures that have been around for ever, and always will be. But if recent trends continue, the last part may not remain true.

The South Pacific is home to six of the world’s seven species of marine turtle, and all of those species are endangered in one or more areas. For instance, declining green turtle numbers are causing concern in Samoa, whereas in Vanuatu leatherbacks and hawksbills seem in more trouble.

In many parts of the Pacific, turtles have been taken as food for centuries. Eggs are also a popular food item. Motor boats, cheap nylon nets and population growth mean that more turtles have been caught from even the remotest hideaways in recent decades.

Then there are those that get caught in nets meant for other fish, and drown (they are reptiles and breathe air like us), and those that choke on plastic rubbish, mistaking it for jellyfish, a common turtle food item. Turtle breeding is jeopardised by tourist and other commercial developments on the beaches where they lay their eggs. Turtle shells—the ivory of the sea—are valued for their beauty, and used in making jewellery. Turtle skins become leather for shoes and wallets. None of this contribtes much to the turtle’s life expectancy.

Their life cycles do not help their cause much, either. Females don’t start laying eggs until they are at least 20 years old, and perhaps closer to 50. Clutches of 120 or so round white eggs only appear at two- to eight-year intervals. And egg laying, when it does occur, seems frequently to happen on beaches thousands of kilometres from feeding grounds, for turtles are migratory creatures. Nesting females tagged at Scilly Atoll, near Tahiti, for example, have been discov­ered feeding in New Caledonia. Completely loyal to France!

Numbers of breeding females are the easiest turtle populations to monitor, and in Australia numbers of breeding loggerheads have declined by 50 to 80 per cent in the last decade. On some of the breeding beaches, close to 90 per cent of the females appearing are first-tune breeders. In a long-lived animal like the turtle, this figure should be closer to 10 per cent. Mortality among young turtles is high—perhaps only one egg in a thousand becomes a successfully reproducing adult.

Migration complicates turtle conservation. Protect­ing them in only one country accomplishes little, so five years ago the South Pacific Regional Environmental Programme (SPREP) was set up by 23 Pacific nations including New Zealand, four other interested countries (Great Britain, Australia, the United States and France), and more than a dozen non-government organisations such as conservation groups, churches and youth groups to help deal with environmental issues in the region.

From its base in Western Samoa, SPREP has involved itself with marine mammals, some birds, biodiversity, climate change, cyclone monitoring, sustainable development and sea turtles, among other issues. The aim with sea turtles is to help fisheries and conservation agencies in the individual countries of the region protect the various species.

SPREP marshals re­sources to assist national groups, encourages lawmak­ers to forbid commercial trade in turtle products and mounts surveys of populations. Indeed it was the results of SPREP’s monitoring in 1989 and 1990 that led to the decision to make 1995 the year of the turtle.

In some areas, laws forbid the killing of turtles for any use apart from in traditional ceremonies, but these restrictions are widely disregarded. Eventually, SPREP would like to see reduced usage of turtles in such ceremonies, but does not seek a total ban on killing turtles. Rather, the thrust of the campaign is to get people to think carefully whether they really need to kill a turtle, for if they do, they are potentially robbing their children of the chance to see one.

Publicity and education campaigns highlighting the turtle’s plight are also a ajor component of the effort. To grab the attention of younger islanders, a rap music video entitled “Turtle, Turtle” has been produced by SPREP in Auckland using island musicians. It will be used to spread the conserva­tion message among islanders here and in the Pacific.

Although 1995 is the year of the turtle, the campaign to save them will not be won or lost in a single year. But it is surely high time that turtle soup was taken off the menu.

More by