UN Sea Turtle Recommendation Under Fire

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On October 6th the UN General Assembly began considering a recommendation to prevent the further decline of endangered sea turtles. The recommendation, which some environmentalists say will not do enough to prevent the imminent extinction of the leatherback sea turtle in the Pacific, will be included in resolution up for a General Assembly vote on November 28th.

Environmentalists are instead calling on the UN to strengthen the recommendation by implementing urgently needed conservation measures.

Recommended by a meeting of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea this past June, the recommendation merely calls for implementing a voluntary set of guidelines by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

“Although the FAO Guidelines have some good parts to it, unfortunately it is voluntary and cannot be enforced. Every single FAO plan has failed miserably. That is why we need a moratorium until sufficient measures can be put into place,” Ovetz added.

To date, 1,007 scientists from 97 nations, 231 non-governmental organizations from 62 nations and thousands of other citizens from many countries that have called on the United Nations urging it to implement a moratorium on high seas pelagic longline fishing in the Pacific.

The letter has been signed by eminent scientists including biologist Dr. E. O. Wilson, Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE and Dr. Sylvia Earle.

“While we praise the UN for finally calling for action to reduce the threats to sea turtles from deadly longline fishing, we need more than talk. We need scientifically proven measures that can save the leatherback from extinction,” said Robert Ovetz, PhD, Save the Leatherback Campaign Coordinator with the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.

The range of measures advocated by environmentalists and some countries include time and area closures in key nesting and migratory areas, reduction in overcapacity of fishing effort, hard caps on the bycatch of threatened and endangered species, best practices in bycatch mitigation, training for fishers, 100 percent observer coverage, satellite tracking of vessels and public reporting of catch and bycatch data.

A recent study by NOAA Fisheries has identified two specific routes used by sea turtles to migrate across the Pacific.

Recent reports in the scientific journals Nature and in the journal Ecology have warned that billfish and shark populations have declined by about 90 percent in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific since the 1950s.

Billfish and sharks as well as sea turtles, seabirds, marine mammals and even tuna and swordfish are caught and killed by longlines as so called bycatch. A recent study by the Sea Turtle Restoration Project found that 4.4 million of these species are caught and killed in the Pacific each year.

“Some countries were calling for closed areas on the high seas to protect the many species being wiped out by longlines but the Japanese delegation blocked everyone of them from being included in the recommendation,” Ovetz recounted.

“However, the General Assembly has the opportunity to put real teeth back into the recommendation by implementing recommended conservation measures.”

The female nesting population of the 100 million year old Pacific leatherback sea turtle has collapsed by 95 percent since 1980. The leatherback is listed as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union and scientists warn that it could extinct in the next 5-30 years unless immediate action to remove threats to its survival such as longline fishing.

The Pacific loggerhead sea turtle and the black-footed albatross are also caught primarily by longlines and considered on the precipice of extinction. Longline fishing is the main threat to albatross seabirds, 19 of the 21 of the species of which are considered threatened or endangered.