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Marine Turtle Conservation

12 November 2004

Marine Turtle Conservation

Scientists working to conserve endangered turtle populations in British overseas territories have issued a report urging their Governments to do more to protect them.

A 3 year research project, led by the University of Exeter in Cornwall and the Marine Conservation Society, found that the nesting numbers of endangered species such as the hawksbill and leatherback turtle have declined to critically low levels, and may even have become extinct in certain parts of the Caribbean.

Turtles are legally harvested across the Caribbean for their meat. Some Territories even allow the capture of nesting female turtles and their eggs. While this harvest is permitted, few of the Territories monitor the number of turtles being caught.

Dr Brendan Godley of the Marine Turtle Research Group, University of Exeter in Cornwall, said

"These critically small nesting populations must be protected if they are to recover.

We therefore recommend a complete and permanent ban on the harvest of adult turtles and their eggs and protection of important nesting habitat in all the Territories."

"What we have seen is part and parcel of a Caribbean tradition. Our aim is not to break with that tradition but to ensure that turtle harvesting is done in a way that is sustainable both for the people that depend on it, and the marine life."

The Cayman Islands are believed to have hosted one of the largest nesting colonies of green turtles in the Caribbean.

After centuries of turtle harvest, Cayman's green turtle nesting population is close to extinction with only 51 green turtle nests recorded there in 2002.

Cayman's hawksbill nesting population may have already been wiped out, with the last hawksbill turtle nest recorded there in 1999.

In addition, the report reveals that nesting hawksbill and green turtle populations in Anguilla, BVI, Montserrat and TCI are also critically low.

It recommends that the UK Government funds marine biodiversity conservation and management in the Overseas Territories.

"The recommendations in this report closely reflect the decisions agreed on Caribbean hawksbill turtle management by delegates to the CITES 12th Conference of Parties 2002 and which were extended at CoP13 Bangkok last month", said a Defra spokesman, "The UK Government is committed to fulfilling our obligations under CITES and remains committed to working with the Governments of the UK Overseas Territories to promote biodiversity conservation".

The project also revealed that some of the Territories host regionally important foraging populations of juvenile green and hawksbill turtles, and it is these populations that are primarily targeted by the remaining turtle fisheries.

The Turks and Caicos Islands in particular has a very large population of green turtles feeding on its extensive sea grass beds and in its tidal creeks, while the Cayman Island reefs host significant numbers of foraging juvenile hawksbills.

The Marine Conservation Society helped coordinate the project, their Species Policy Officer Peter Richardson said -

"These regionally important foraging populations may be seriously threatened if the Territories continue to neglect the management of their turtle fisheries.

Strict turtle fishery management measures are urgently needed to ensure the survival of the turtle populations in those Territories that still harvest them."

The report, Turtles in the Caribbean Overseas Territories, recommends that Territory governments make amendments to national legislation, introduce turtle fishery management measures, and increase research and public awareness efforts to halt the decline of their turtle populations. It is available in full online at:

http://www.seaturtle.org/mtrg/projects/tcot

ENDS

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