Marine Turtles under Threat in the Arabian Sea

by Zofeen T. Ebrahim

Marine turtles, a resilient group of creatures that have been around for over 200 million years and survived mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaur, are today facing their gravest challenge yet. Nearly all species are classified as endangered – under threat from overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction and rising temperatures.

Members of a regional task force from Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka made urgent calls for a plan to stop the decline of the threatened species when they met in Colombo at the second meeting of The Northern Indian Ocean Marine Turtle Task Force (NIO-MTFF) at the end of January.

The task force, comprising experts and government officials from each country, was set up by the Indian Ocean and South East Asia (IOSEA) Marine Turtle Memorandum of Understanding, an inter-governmental agreement under the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).

This provides a rare opportunity for conservationists from across the region – including India and Pakistan – to share experiences and for countries to work together towards a common goal.

Sharing country-specific experiences, the experts pointed out that the threats to their survival included fishing, poaching, habitat degradation and coastal development. Apart from adopting best practices from other countries, they also committed to enforcing relevant legislation and collaborating with each other on research initiatives, including satellite and flipper tagging.

“I think regional collaboration is a very important initiative,” said marine biologist Fehmida Firdaus, the only Pakistani with a doctorate in marine turtles. “We really need a task force like this for undertaking conservation programme.”

A dearth of both manpower and financial resources make patrolling beaches or quality research impossible: “This regional cooperation will give impetus to both,” said the researcher, who retired from the Sindh Wildlife Department in 2014 having given over 30 years to marine turtle conservation and research.

Species under threat

Two of the world’s seven marine turtle species – the Olive Ridley and the leatherback – are ranked as ‘vulnerable’, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of threatened species, while loggerhead and green turtles are classified as ‘endangered’ and the hawksbill and kemp’s ridley ‘critically endangered’. Data for flatback turtles remains insufficient.

On land, the threats discussed included the degradation of turtle nesting areas and development activity on the beaches, said Samar Hussain Khan, Deputy Conservator (Wildlife) at Pakistan’s Ministry Of Climate Change.

Other threats included the hundreds of eggs that are destroyed and poached by people, dogs and other predators and the callous use of artificial light on beaches confusing both the nesting females and their hatchlings, leading them astray instead of towards the water or the hatcheries.

But the threats to turtles in the water are a more significant concern, said Umair Shahid, manager of the marine program at WWF-Pakistan. “Our biggest concern was the by-catch and ghost nets [lost or abandoned fish gear] that posed a serious threat to the turtle population.” Getting accidentally caught in fishing nets and big trawlers is the biggest danger to the turtles.

“It is frustrating,” said Shahid, “that the lack of evidence and data keeps countries from taking robust decisions on implementing conservation and management measures to mitigate by-catch of sea turtles in fishing operations.”

Small steps in Pakistan

But what gives conservationists like Shahid some hope is that countries like Pakistan, that enjoy EU’s preferential trade scheme, are taking action as they may be asked to clarify their positions on the adoption of the FAO code of conduct for responsible fishing, which includes implementation of a national plan of action for sea turtle conservation.

While there is still a lot to be done to ensure survival of these magnificent animals, fishermen hold the “key for sustainable fishing, since they have been actively involved in the release of thousands of sea turtles alive from fishing gear,” said the WWF spokesperson.

In 2013, WWF-Pakistan started training fishermen to safely release sea turtles entangled in their nets. Since then about 20,000 sea turtles have been safely released. This has resulted in a major impact on the population of sea turtles in Pakistani waters.

At the same time, Firdaus hoped the government would declare nesting areas in Pakistan as protected areas. “Even if just 5 km of the 12 km area at the beach at Hawkesbay [near Karachi] becomes a turtle reserve and covered by legislation it will be wonderful,” she said. She also hoped the Sindh Wildlife Ordinance, which she helped draft in 2010 and continues to gather dust at the provincial assembly, will get a new lease of life.

But even enforcement of existing laws remains weak, lamented Khan, due to lack of awareness, limited inter-agency collaboration and financial constraints. Under various laws, it is illegal to hunt, kill or capture protected species. Even export and domestic consumption is prohibited.

In the 1980s, when Firdaus began visiting the nesting areas of the turtles, there were a few houses around the beaches; today, to her horror, “the place is swamped with housing colonies”.

“More people are seen visiting and have constructed beach huts there and hold parties till late in the night. They light up the place and make noise, play loud music and litter the place. How will the turtles lay their eggs?” She warned that if turtles are unable to nest, the ecosystem’s food chain will be broken. “If the turtle population decreases, the plankton and algae on which they feed in the sea will grow unabated.”

Olive Ridley turtles used to visit Pakistani beaches, but since 2013 no nesting has been reported, said Samar Khan of the Climate Change ministry. The WWF says that no nesting has been reported in the last 13 years. Even Firdaus cannot remember the last time she witnessed their nesting, though Khan claims they are reported in Pakistani waters in good numbers.

But this is nothing compared to the arrival Firdaus witnessed in Odisha, on India’s eastern coast, when hundreds come out of the Bay of Bengal en masse on to the beach, each one digging up a two-foot hole, depositing a hundred or so eggs and then awkwardly lumbering back into the water – a sight she will never forget.

In hot water

Along with the real and present threats, the task force meeting also touched upon the slow unfolding impacts of climate change and how associated rising temperature is causing an imbalance in the sex ratio in this reptile. Earlier this year a study published in Science Direct revealed that increased temperatures linked to climate change was leading to the ‘feminisation’ of green turtles in the northern Great Barrier Reef.

Only about 1pc of these juvenile turtles were hatching male. “…many sea turtle populations are in danger of high egg mortality and female-only offspring production” stated the study.

Pollution of the ocean by plastic was a key item on the Colombo meeting agenda. According to WWF, 8.8 million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean every year, the equivalent of a garbage truck dumping a full load every minute. Hundreds and thousands of turtles die each year from becoming entangled in or ingesting plastic and other waste.

“This is a planetary crisis,” the UN oceans chief Lisa Svensson had told the BBC. “In a few short decades since we discovered the convenience of plastics, we are ruining the ecosystem of the ocean.”

Along with the dumping of plastic, Shahid is concerned about the 450 million gallons of untreated waste from Pakistan alone going into the Arabian Sea every day.

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