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By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, May 14, 2001 (ENS) - Greater cooperation between the countries of the Caribbean is urgently needed to stem the tide of strong demand for marine turtle products in this region, according to a new report. Marine turtles in the Northern Caribbean have over the centuries been devastated by overexploitation, bringing some populations to the brink of extinction and severely threatening others.

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Green sea turtle on the beach (Photo courtesy Tortoise Reserve/Dave Lee)
A new report by TRAFFIC - the wildlife trade monitoring program of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) - revealed that demand for turtle meat, eggs and other products remains strong in many parts of the region, despite efforts to restrict hunting of turtles.

The report by TRAFFIC North America, "Swimming Against The Tide," reviewed the exploitation, trade and management of marine turtles in 11 countries and territories in the Northern Caribbean. Using research and field surveys, it gathered and analyzed information about the harvest of marine turtles, the use of and trade in their products, and the impact of these activities on their populations.

The report is being released on the eve of the First CITES Wider Caribbean Hawksbill Turtle Dialogue Meeting that begins in Mexico City on Tuesday. CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

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Hawksbill sea turtle in shallow water (Photo courtesy Tortoise Reserve/Ken Taylor)
Six species of marine turtles are found in the region: the hawksbill turtle, green turtle, loggerhead turtle, Kemp's ridley turtle, olive ridley turtle and leatherback turtle. Each of these species are classified by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as either endangered or critically endangered, and all are listed on CITES Appendix I, which prohibits international commerce trade in the turtles or their parts.

"Sea turtle meat and eggs are consumed by communities throughout the region, while products are made from turtle parts, including oil, cartilage, skin and shell. They provide everything from basic sustenance to luxury items," said TRAFFIC North America director Simon Habel. "Hawksbill shell products continue to be sold at tourist centers, including international airports, in violation of national laws."

INCONSISTENT CONSERVATION MEASURES

The management and control of turtle exploitation varies greatly across the region, the TRAFFIC report explains.

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Earrings made from a hawksbill turtle shell (Photo courtesy WWF/E. Fleming)
"Some countries have allocated significant resources to conserve marine turtles, while others have done little," Habel said. "Legislation is excellent in some countries but incomplete and outdated in others. Enforcement of regulations is strict in some countries, while in other countries it is nearly non-existent."

Marine turtles are highly migratory species - breeding, nesting and feeding across thousands of miles of ocean. Over-exploitation and illegal trade by the other countries in the region can easily foil significant conservation progress made in some countries.

TRAFFIC researchers found that despite strong protective measures in many countries, demand for turtle products remains persistent throughout the region, with illegally harvested products being openly sold in a number of markets.

Demand for turtle meat and eggs, as well as turtle products such as oil, cartilage, leather and shells, are among the most urgent threats to turtles in the Caribbean region.

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Rum drink containing marine turtle parts in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (Photo courtesy WWF/E. Fleming)
Habel stressed the urgent need for countries in the Caribbean to work closely together to improve the management of their shared marine turtle populations.

"These countries must have regular regional dialogue meetings and consider establishing bilateral or multi-lateral agreements and management plans," Habel said.

LACK OF INFORMATION

Habel also cited lack of information as a severe problem that needs to be addressed by the region as a whole. While biologists are aware of some of the issues that contribute to decreases in turtle populations, such as the loss or degradation of nesting beaches and marine habitats, and capture of turtles as bycatch in net and line fisheries, it is unclear how much of a difference each of these problems creates.

Other obstacles facing efforts to protect turtle species include the biological characteristics of the animals. For example, female turtles generally do not reproduce until they are at least 15 to 20 years of age in some species, and up to 50 years in others. Eggs, hatchlings and juveniles suffer heavy natural mortality as well as impacts from humans.

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Kemp's Ridley sea turtle swimming (Photo courtesy Tortoise Reserve/Dave Lee)
"Further research is needed on basic sea turtle ecology such as the distribution of populations and migration patterns," he explained. "Our study also revealed that, in many countries, there is little effort to compile data on harvest levels of turtles and eggs, as well as levels of poaching and illegal trade, incidental catch and product seizures."

Countries in the region need to intensify their data collection and research efforts and actively exchange this information with each other. The TRAFFIC report suggests that information could be fed into a regional repository to establish baseline indicators of harvest levels and compile statistics of legal landings, reported poaching incidents, strandings and levels of incidental catch.

A centralized database of seizures and prosecutions would also assist governments in the region in assessing trends in law enforcement, trade routes, levels of illegal trade, values of products and smuggling methods, the TRAFFIC report notes.

MORE NEEDS TO BE DONE

Habel noted that some progress has already been made in the area of regional cooperation, including initiatives such as the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles, which came into force this month. This is the only international treaty created specifically to conserve marine turtles and their habitats.

However, the Cartagena Convention - The Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean Region, which took effect in 1983 - is the only legally binding environmental treaty for the region.

The First CITES Wider Caribbean Hawksbill Turtle Dialogue Meeting will take place May 15-17 in Mexico City and will be attended by 33 countries and territories in the wider Caribbean territory.

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A baby green sea turtle heading out to sea (Photo courtesy WWF/George Huey)
The TRAFFIC report recommends that regional officials work to fill information gaps and increase information exchange about sea turtles. Expanding public awareness and strengthening national legislation to protect turtles would also help to protect the species, the report notes.

"Much more needs to be done to build regional cooperation in areas such as information exchange, legislation, enforcement, training, capacity building and public awareness," Habel concluded. "Only then can we hope to stem the tide of strong demand, and rebuild and conserve marine turtle populations in the Northern Caribbean."

The full report is available at: http://www.worldwildlife.org/species/attachments/caribbean_turtles.pdf