Kenyan turtles on the verge of extinction

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With four “licensed” prawn trawlers operating within 1.5 nautical miles at the Malindi-Ungwana bay, dozens of long-liners operating in the Exclusive Economic Zone, and about 400 foreign licensed and unlicensed commercial fishing vessel and ring-netters, the future of the endangered turtle is doomed.

Experts estimate the population of nesting turtles on Kenyan beaches to be only in their hundreds. Putting this in a terrestrial perspective, turtles are the marine equivalent of elephants in conservation terms.

The trawling within five nautical miles and ring-netting, though globally condemned by conservationists and illegal in most countries, is being carried out in Kenya under questionable ‘special licence’ by Coast fisheries headquarters which fishermen claim is motivated by corruption rather than research as the Fisheries Department alleges, has taken a commercial rather than scientific dimension.

Worse still, trawling has been going on for the last two years, without the mandatory Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), or any form of monitoring and supervision by the Kenya Marine Research Institute (KMFRI) as required by law.

By last week, fisheries had only one officer in one of the four trawlers. The Director of Fisheries, Mrs Nancy Gitonga, was shocked to learn of this state of neglect by her officers at the Coast and promised to investigate the claims.

Prawn trawlers record 80 per cent by-catch without the TEDs. The by-catch comprises mostly of juveniles, turtles, sharks and rays among others.

The Mombasa office is exploiting some loopholes in the Fisheries Act to license the trawlers and ring-netters, although section 14 (1) of the Act under Fisheries Regulations 43 (1) (d) prohibits trawling within five nautical miles.

Fishermen interviewed in Malindi recently blamed the hundreds of dead turtles washed offshore on prawn trawlers and long-liners. This is so because turtles retrieved from the nets alive are usually slaughtered and their products extracted for sale in illicit outlets.

Turtle oil, meat, and eggs fetch a high price in the local market where they are highly valued for their medicinal and aphrodisiac properties.

More than 7,000 fishermen who have derived their livelihood from the sea for centuries have found themselves getting more involved in turtle hunting as well to supplement their quickly dwindling catch caused by the uncontrolled commercial over-exploitation of fishery resources.

This is despite the ban on trade in turtle products by the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species which has placed the world’s seven species of turtle in Appendix I – at the same level as the African elephant.

Kenya is a signatory to Cites, but the KWS and the Fisheries Department seems only keen to protect some species.

Turtles are also threatened by the rapid development in the tourism industry on our beaches, leading to loss of nesting sites while security lights and noise pollution deters nesting females and disorientates hatchlings crawling to the sea.

Similarly, the dumping of waste and beach pollution negatively affects nesting turtles on the beaches.

Two species of turtle are known to nest in Kenyan beaches – the Greens and Hawksbills. There are 22 nesting beaches stretching from Funzi Island in the south to Kiunga in the north. The peak-nesting season for green and hawksbill turtles is March to June. However, five species of turtle are known to use the entire, highly-productive 600 kilometres of Kenya’s coastline for feeding.

Figures recorded last year in the Kiunga, Kipini, Ngomeni, Malindi and Watamu areas, show that there were about 20,000 successful hatchlings. But only one in every 1000 hatchlings grows to maturity. A turtle takes 20-30 years to mature and start breeding. And according to records, less than 200 of the hatchlings are expected to grow to the breeding age.