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Saving the gardeners of the ocean

First Posted 16:30:00 12/07/2010


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MANILA, Philippines?They are the most charismatic of marine animals, gentle, mysterious ambassadors of the sea who wander thousands of miles across the world?s oceans, serving as important indicators of the health and condition of the marine environment. After some 35 years, females return to the beach of their birth to lay their eggs in a remarkable cycle of life.

The Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion (SSME), home of the world?s greatest marine biodiversity, hosts some 600 species of corals and over 1,200 species of fish. It also hosts five of the world?s seven species of sea turtles?Green (Chelonia mydas), Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), Loggerhead (Caretta caretta), Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), and Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea). Green and Hawksbill turtles, in particular, nest and feed in areas all over the three SSME countries?Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

Today, this creature is confronting a slew of threats beyond its traditional use as food, killed for its meat and eggs. Many dangers face the animal at different stages in its life, from the consumption of eggs by humans and animals and the capture of hatchlings by predators, to habitat loss and degradation, poaching to turn shells into sunglasses and souvenirs, and the increasingly serious threat of being killed as by-catch in large-scale fisheries. Even as a female turtle lays hundreds of eggs, only about two percent will survive to sexual maturity. Dr. Nicolas Pilcher, Director of the
Marine Research Foundation, estimated in 2007 that in Sabah, Malaysia alone, up to 3,000 turtles are killed annually as fisheries by-catch.

Protection of these far-ranging animals is a more complex matter than it seems, however. In 2006, the three countries of the SSME?Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines?established a Tri-National Committee to govern the ecoregion, and under which three subcommittees were assigned to respectively address threatened, charismatic, and migratory species; marine protected areas (MPA) and network; and fisheries.

The establishment of a transboundary MPA network to protect turtles, as well as other charismatic species such as Napoleon wrasse, marine mammals, and sharks, falls under the jurisdiction of the Subcommittee on Threatened, Charismatic, and Migratory Species, in alignment with its goal: to provide technical advice and recommendations to improve the policies on the protection and management of such species and their habitats, in order to maintain the full range of biodiversity and provide for the long-term and socio-economic and cultural needs of human communities in the SSME.

The Subcommittee?s Action Plan is also consistent with Goal No. 5 of the Coral Triangle Initiative, which governs the Coral Triangle, the larger ecoregion of which the SSME is a significant part. This CTI goal prioritizes ?the improved status of sharks, sea turtles?marine mammals?and other identified threatened species.?

?An MPA network addresses the entire life history of turtles, from nesting and development to feeding and mating,? says Romeo B. Trono, country executive
director of Conservation International Philippines, an environmental group that has been working in the SSME for the past five years.. ?In that way, a network of MPA cans truly support the region?s marine turtles and all their habitats.?

The three subcommittees? respective Action Plans, which are articulations of the broader SSME Ecoregion Conservation Plan developed in 2003, were launched at the East Asian Seas (EAS) Congress in Manila in 2009. They will be integrated into the SSME Comprehensive Action Plans, which will outline priority projects and possible sources of funding.

?The work of the subcommittees complement each other,? Trono says. ?The species will definitely benefit from better fisheries and MPA management, while MPA networks are supported by sustainable fishing.?

A good illustration of such complementary goals: in 2009, the SSME Subcommittee on Sustainable Fisheries helped organize a five-day observation trip for representatives of the Malaysian trawler fishing industry to Pascagoula, Louisiana, USA to learn more about the use of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs). The fishermen realized that the device not only spared turtles and other species; it actually contributed to greater fuel conservation and fishing efficiency.

?Turtles are the gardeners of the ocean, and their work benefits many other marine species,? Trono emphasizes. ?Their ecological significance is immeasurable, so it is imperative that we work together to protect them.?

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