Saluting our turtle champions
Since the last World Turtle Day, there have been increasing reports of individuals or groups of people rescuing turtles in distress, or becoming witnesses for turtles in captivity.
Marine Species Coordinator, Laitia Tamata said these individuals reported turtle sightings or rescues to WWF-South Pacific, who with partners from the Fisheries Department and the University of the South Pacific’s Marine Science Programme released the ancient mariners back into the wild.
“Several turtles were rescued by hotel workers in Ra, in an area where dredging had been carried out and were kept in a small pond so WWF was informed and we worked with the Fisheries department to rescue the turtles and releasing them safely to sea,” Tamata said.
“Some paddlers rescued an injured turtle while they were paddling in Suva Bay.
“In another incident, an individual spotted one turtle kept captive in the swimming pool of a private residence in Suva and informed us and the turtle was rescued accordingly.”
Tamata said the increasing number of reports is testament to the effectiveness of awareness that is being carried out both by WWF-South Pacific and the Department of Fisheries on the need to protect sea turtles.
Sea turtle species recorded nesting and foraging (feeding) in Fiji waters includes Greens, Hawksbills and Loggerheads. The Green turtle is listed as an endangered species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Declining sea turtle numbers in Fiji waters inspired the setup of the Fiji Sea Turtle Recovery Plan (FSTRP) 2009-2013, with the defining goal of growing sea turtle numbers to a point that populations can be declared as sustainable by 2026. The plan was reviewed last year by the Fiji Sea Turtle Steering Committee to determine what has been achieved and what remains to be implemented. This is done in line with formulating a new plan to cover the period 2014-2019.
The Turtle Moratorium 2009-2018, an offshoot of the FSTRP prohibits the harvest of sea turtles without a permit during off-nesting season and a total prohibition on take when turtles nest.
Turtle conservation is also a mandate under Fiji’s commitments to the Convention on Biological Diversity, reflected in the National Biodiversity Strategic Action Plan.
“When we look back to those early days we can say progress has been made as we pursue the path to the 2026 goal with the help of individuals and communities that are making a stand for sea turtle protection, we can say with all certainty that we can reach that goal,” Tamata said.
Tamata said a hallmark for turtle conservation is the public declarations of abstinence from turtle meat consumption made by one time turtle hunters changed by the turtle gospel and now carrying the message to their immediate communities.
“It takes bravery, and real commitment to turtle protection, to stand in front of your elders challenging deep-seated beliefs and the popular orientation for turtle meat consumption. Some of the turtle monitors are barely out of their teens but they did advocate for turtles at village and district meetings, facing ridicule. However, because of their steadfast commitment they caused a wave of change that we believe is now sweeping through our coastal communities,” he said.
There is anecdotal evidence from communities about frequency of sightings of turtles nesting and foraging, unlike previously.
The traditional leader of Yadua Island in Bua, the Turaga Tunimata Jone Tavatava said the whole island is committed to turtle conservation because they started seeing turtles return to their beaches to nest.
“Ena dua na gauna baleta ni sa rui sivia na neimami qoliva na manumanu qo, sa dau dredre saraga na kena laurai. Keimami sa tokona kece na sasaga ni kena maroroi na vonu baleta ena gauna oqo sa levu sara na vonu era sa laurai nira kabita mai na yanuyanu mera mai kana se vakasucu. (At one point, because of overharvesting it was difficult to spot a turtle. Now we are all rallying behind turtle conservation as we see more turtles returning to feed and nest in Yadua.)
WWF-South Pacific calls on all individuals and communities in Fiji to continue advocating for sea turtle protection, for the sake of healthy reefs and vibrant oceans.
Turtles are an important natural resource that must be given the opportunity to survive for many more generations of Fijians.