Sea turtles – iconic but going extinct

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Reports of the extinction of China’s iconic Yangtze River dolphins have some conservationists in the South Pacific fearing that the same fate awaits certain migratory species of sea turtles, which are similarly imperilled.

The leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), the largest living species of sea turtle, is said to be in grave danger in Pacific waters. Turtles are among the world’s creatures that survived the dinosaur age.

It could be the first of the turtle species to disappear from this part of the world unless remedial action is taken, says Penina Solomona, the Regional Marine Officer with the WWF South Pacific Programme.

In an interview with IPS, Penina said WWF was saddened by the extinction of the whitefin dolphin.

Asked if parallels could be drawn between the whitefin dolphins and turtles in the South Pacific, Penina answered in the affirmative saying that polluted waters, intensive fishing activity and busy shipping traffic posed similar threats to turtles.

“The Pacific can relate to an example of a cultural icon becoming extinct through human activity (and) it may be an opportunity to engage people’s emotions to the possibility that their actions can drive an animal to extinction,” she said.

Craig Morley, a conservation biologist at the University if the South Pacific, said the whitefin dolphins were driven to extinction first by relentless hunting, and then by habitat destruction such as building dams and draining water for agriculture as well as pollution.

Morley said that the same destructive pattern could be seen in the Pacific.

Asked if turtles were similarly threatened Morley said: “Absolutely. Once a species fall below a certain population size, they can fall into what we call an extinction vortex – driven by things like loss of genetic diversity (which increases the likelihood for disease and genetic inbreeding), demographic imbalances (more of one sex than another), the allee affect (when they can’t find reproductive partners), and they are more prone to environmental stochasticity (floods, droughts etc).

“The trouble is we are not learning the lessons of the past or what happens elsewhere,” Morley said.

Just as the whitefin dolphins were iconic figures in Chinese culture and folklore, the sea turtle has been a key figure and symbol of Pacific island cultures and traditions.

But just as the whitefin dolphins’ special status did not protect them, so it is with the turtles, which are prized for their meat in the Pacific Islands.

Morley said that many locals who defy bans and take turtles indiscriminately are opportunistic hunters.

They do it for commercial purposes even though this is illegal, and not always for feasts or cultural and traditional events for which hunting is sometimes permitted.

“Even though there is a turtle ban (in Fiji), it is a waste of time and a cop-out by the politicians as they provide no funds to enforce this ban,” Morley said. Fiji is on a five-year moratorium (ending 2008) under which the commercial harvest and sale of sea turtles is banned but sale and consumption of turtle meat is common.

“This is typical of many conservation treaties – people sign up thinking that this is all that is needed but nobody puts their money where their mouths are,” Morely said.

While several species of sea turtle are taken for food, the giant leatherback turtle is said to be the most threatened as they are accidentally caught and killed in long line fisheries.

It is currently identified as ‘critically endangered’ and many scientists fear that unless threats to these animals are negated, they could suffer the same fate as the white dolphins.

“At the current rate of decline, there will definitely be a point in time when turtles will no longer exist,” said Penina.