By Melissa Normann
There are six species of sea turtles found in the Caribbean Sea, and all six face well-documented threats including over-fishing, egg poaching, international trade, fisheries by-catch, coastal habitat degradation and, increasingly, climate change. Although this myriad of threats seems daunting, the migratory nature of all sea turtle species requires and provides the opportunity to catalyze coordinated action between governments and NGOs in the region to help secure the future of the endangered hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), Kemp’s ridley (Lepiochelys kempii), leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), green (Chelonia mydas), and loggerhead (Caretta caretta) turtles.
Since 1981, the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network, or WIDECAST, has been at the forefront of sea turtle conservation in the region. The network was formed by conservationist Milton Kaufman in response to an identified need for a regional sea turtle recovery plan and was conceived as a network of volunteer experts that could help governments meet their national sea turtle conservation mandates, as well as those stipulated through international conventions such as the Cartagena Convention (with its SPAW Protocol) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Since 1989, Karen Eckert has served as the Executive Director of WIDECAST. To advance the network’s goal of recovering sea turtle populations to a sustainable level, she counts on a team of 55 volunteer country coordinators — sea turtle experts, natural resource managers, and community-based conservationists that catalyze stakeholders in their home countries to advance sea turtle conservation efforts. Locally-based country coordinators also ensure that all nations have access to WIDECAST’s services and expertise.
For nearly 30 years, WIDECAST representatives have come together at annual meetings to discuss issues, share experiences, and collaboratively develop priorities for the next year. James Gumbs, WIDECAST country coordinator in Anguilla, remarks, “The passion and energy that flows through the room during a WIDECAST annual meeting inspires and motivates participants during those times when all seems hopeless.” Eckert affirms, “Every country does something well and can provide a model for others to learn from. Sea turtles face a wide array of survival threats, and it’s very encouraging to know that someone in the network has already succeeded at what you’re trying to do — and can help you.”
The WIDECAST network has worked closely together to develop resources and tools for decision-makers and conservationists in the region. In 2007, with the participation of more than 120 experts, WIDECAST and The Nature Conservancy published An Atlas of Sea Turtle Nesting Habitat for the Wider Caribbean Region, which identifies more than 1,300 nesting beaches in the region. In 2006, with support from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, WIDECAST published a field guide entitled Building Capacity to Care for Sick and Injured Sea Turtles, which provides the first set of guidelines for citizens, governments, conservationists, and veterinarians to help care for sea turtles in crisis.
WIDECAST has also developed 12 national Sea Turtle Recovery Action Plans (STRAP) that summarize the distribution of sea turtles, their threats, existing policies, and conservation recommendations. Eckert notes that, “In many of these countries, the STRAPs served as the framework for conservation planning not only for sea turtles, but for other species of concern.” As a direct result, the British Virgin Islands closed its leatherback fishery and extended the closed season for other species during the breeding season, a major recommendation featured in that STRAP. Going one step further, Belize, Aruba, and the Netherlands Antilles all closed every one of their sea turtle fisheries in response to their respective STRAPs. Edith van der Wal, WIDECAST country coordinator in Aruba, affirms, “Our STRAP is still an important guideline for us and is a vivid example of a national management plan for Aruba’s biodiversity in general.”
In 2006, after four years of extensive research and peer review, Eckert and Amie Bräutigam from the Perry Marine Institute completed a regional assessment entitled Turning the Tide: Exploitation, Trade and Management of Marine Turtles in the Lesser Antilles, Central America, Colombia and Venezuela. The report, commissioned by the CITES Secretariat and published by TRAFFIC International, analyzed the status of 26 countries related to exploitation, trade, and management of sea turtles; quantities relating to trade and exploitation; current management initiatives; national and regional constraints associated with managing turtles; and policy recommendations for each country.
To develop the landmark assessment, Eckert and Bräutigam distributed a questionnaire to CITES authorities and WIDECAST coordinators in each of the countries and also analyzed existing data and literature. After completing a draft chapter for each country, they undertook an extensive 18-month peer review process until each appropriate government authority agreed that the information in the assessment was appropriate for their country. Eckert emphasizes, “This intensive review stemmed from our desire to create something that all stakeholders could buy into and use as a blueprint for sea turtle conservation and management, a document that was fair and relevant.” The assessment was formally presented at a CITES meeting in 2007, and governmental responses continue to be positive.
Eckert is heartened by the fact that governments in the region are responding to conservation recommendations by changing their sea turtle management policies. For example, the Trinidadian government has signed co-management agreements with local NGOs, leading to model sea turtle ecotourism programs. Nicaragua has completed the only formal sea turtle stock assessment in the hemisphere. In 2008, the Cayman Islands became the second country in the hemisphere, after Belize, to institute maximum size limits in its fishery, which protects reproductively active adults from harvest.
Progress is evident even in countries that have not yet developed a STRAP. For example, in response to international pressure the Dominican Republic’s Secretaría de Estado de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARENA) recently began to investigate illegal trade activity and confiscate the largest stockpile of illegal hawksbill products in the hemisphere. Eckert praises these efforts. “For decades the Dominican Republic has been a major hub for illegally trafficked tortoiseshell, both domestically and throughout the region. The fact that so much progress is now being made so quickly is a great testament to the commitment of SEMARENA, as well as to a positive confluence of domestic and international focus on the issue.”
To build on national efforts, WIDECAST urges governments to better coordinate regional sea turtle conservation efforts. Approximately 70 percent of countries in the Wider Caribbean region fully protect sea turtles, while 30 percent still harvest one or more species. Because sea turtles are highly migratory and spend their breeding and foraging seasons in the waters of multiple jurisdictions, they navigate through different management regimes, some less stringent than others. As a result, the region’s “patchwork” approach can compromise the investments some governments have made in sea turtle conservation efforts.
WIDECAST believes that there are many ways for governments to work together to conserve dangerously low sea turtle populations. For example, governments could share information gained through tag returns, satellite telemetry, and genetic analysis in order to determine which jurisdictions share management responsibility of specific populations. They could work together to negotiate and adopt multilateral approaches to documented trans-border threats; such an effort is currently underway between Costa Rica and Panama to reduce sea-turtle poaching along their shared border. WIDECAST also encourages countries to share success stories with their neighbors, to participate in peer-exchanges, and to develop consistent law enforcement training programs to help reduce illegal trafficking and poaching.
Eckert concludes, “Our goal is to recover these animals to the point where they can fulfill a suite of cultural and economic roles. With so many different sectors now engaged in sea turtle conservation, there are many ways that countries can profit from these animals in a sustainable and often non-consumptive manner. Conservation and management questions are going to become more and more interesting, and these animals are going to become increasingly valuable.”
Meanwhile, WIDECAST’s efforts in the region are paying off: The Caribbean is the only geographic region in the world that can demonstrate rising populations of all six marine turtle species.