Interview by Yessenia Soto, Rainforest Alliance
“We must teach fishers how they can help to save turtles, and explain that a healthy ocean where turtles and people can coexist will benefit the commercially important fish that are the basis of their livelihood.”
According to the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, all six species of sea turtles found in American waters are threatened by the destruction of coastal nesting habitat, poaching, and incidental capture from fishing vessels. Three of those species — leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricate), and Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) — are listed as critically endangered.
The Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles (IAC) is an intergovernmental coalition of 15 countries that provides the legal framework for members to take action to conserve sea turtles. Verónica Cáceres Chamorro, Secretary pro tempore for the Convention, talks with us about the threats that sea turtles are facing, the work the convention does to help save them, and its challenges and achievements.
Question: Why was the Convention created?
Cáceres: The convention began in response to an alarming decline in sea turtle populations. After recognizing that sea turtles are a shared resource, as they use the waters and coasts of several countries during their life cycles and migrations, and that there are regional threats to their conservation, negotiations began in 1994 to create a legally binding intergovernmental agreement to ensure the permanence of these species. The Convention was ratified by eight countries in 2001. We currently have 15 member countries and provide the legal framework for them to develop and maintain a conservation agenda and carry out specific, harmonious, and more effective actions to recover sea turtle populations in the Americas.
Q: What are the objectives of the Convention?
Cáceres: Our main goal is to promote the protection, conservation, and recovery of sea turtle populations and their habitats. To do this, we rely on the best scientific evidence available and take into account the environmental, socioeconomic, and cultural characteristics of each member country, respecting how each one implements conservation actions while also raising our profile as a regional effort.
We promote negotiations and dialogue among the environmental sector, the fisheries sector, government authorities, non-governmental organizations, the private sector, and other stakeholders in finding viable solutions to restore and conserve sea turtle populations. We encourage scientific research aimed at recovering endangered populations and are trying to standardize all of the information collected on sea turtles in each country in order to measure the actual status of populations. We use this scientific information to make recommendations to member countries on how to improve the implementation of the Convention’s goals and resolutions. In addition, we work with the scientific and consultative committees to keep sea turtles on the governments’ political agendas.
Q: What are the main threats to the survival of sea turtles?
Cáceres: One of the most serious problems is bycatch or accidental capture in fishing gear, so we are focusing on asking countries to work with the fishing industry to help mitigate this key threat. Other risks include habitat degradation at the turtles’ nesting beaches. The most recent threat to emerge is climate change, which is causing the temperature of sand on nesting beaches to increase, and that in turn affects whether the embryos develop into males or females. Climate change also results in loss of nests to beach erosion and the availability of the marine plants sea turtles need. Additional human threats to sea turtles include killing them for their meat, making jewelry from their carapaces, and digging up their eggs for sale and consumption.
Q: What’s being done to solve the bycatch problem?
Cáceres: We are opening up constructive dialogue. We are lucky to be invited to participate in meetings with regional fisheries management organizations, and we take advantage of that opportunity to explain the endangered turtle situation to them and make recommendations on how we can work together to reduce turtle bycatch. To this end, we have established memorandums of understanding with key stakeholders such as the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), the Latin American Organization for Fisheries Development (OLDEPESCA), and the Permanent Commission for the South Pacific.
Q: How has the fishing industry responded to information about the critical status of turtles, the negative impact of their fisheries, and your recommendations?
Cáceres: We still talk to fishers who say, “We don’t catch turtles, we don’t even see them anymore.” But when we ask them whether they think this is because the turtles no longer take the hooks or because there are fewer turtles in the sea, then they reflect on this and talk with us instead of being confrontational. We are convinced that we can move forward in a mutually-beneficial way as long as we include the fishing sector in all negotiations and if we make recommendations that take into account their livelihoods. We must teach fishers how they can help save turtles, and explain that a healthy ocean where turtles and people can coexist will benefit the commercially important fish that are the basis of their livelihood.
Q: Besides working with the fishing sector, how do you work with member countries, and with the general public?
Cáceres: We urge our focal points in the countries, such as ministries of environment and foreign ministries, to publicize our activities and meetings — we have a website and a digital news bulletin that we send them to disseminate to their national sea turtle networks, including NGOs and other stakeholders. We also participate in the Annual Symposium on the Biology and Conservation of Sea Turtles, the premiere event for sea turtle conservation stakeholders. We also signed memoranda of cooperation with other conventions that provide visibility and support to sea turtle conservation, including the CITES Convention and the Protocol Concerning Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW), and we are currently negotiating with the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. We are also promoting activities such as World Sea Turtle Day, June 16, to raise awareness among the general public.
Q: The recently held 32nd International Sea Turtle Symposium was focused on new techniques, approaches, and stakeholders in sea turtle conservation. What are examples of some of these new methods?
Cáceres: They include technological innovations such as satellite tracking, which allows us to learn about the extent of sea turtle migrations and understand their need for protection in different habitats. For example, we knew that hawksbills commonly feed on coral reefs, but thanks to these transmitters, we learned that the eastern Pacific populations are entering estuaries and mangrove swamps to lay eggs, and therefore these are important habitats for turtle conservation. There are also developments in the study of turtle population genetics as well as new fishing gear, such as circle hooks and the use of certain lights with longlines to reduce bycatch. Another new approach is to include coastal communities, hotels, tour operators, and the fishers themselves in the conservation of these species, for example, by providing guidelines for ecotourism involving sea turtles and key recommendations such as the type of lighting that can be used at hotels near nesting beaches to cause less impact and not disorient nesting females and hatchlings.
Q: What are some of the Convention’s major achievements to date?
Cáceres: We have the voluntary support of many experts working in government institutions in various countries, who make up our scientific and consultative committees and who produce, along with the NGO sector, the technical documents and recommendations that we share with member countries. We’ve signed a number of important agreements that have strengthened our relationship with other conventions and fisheries organizations, helping to demonstrate that we maintain friendly and collaborative dialogue with different sectors in order to identify solutions. It is an undeniable success that most countries of the IAC have or are developing national action plans for sea turtle conservation. With assistance from the IAC, they are establishing protected marine areas and nesting beaches for these animals and they are making progress on scientific research, environmental education campaigns, and new laws that regulate or prohibit the use of certain fishing gear such as trawls and gillnets in critical habitats. A growing number of countries are interested in joining the IAC and supporting the regional conservation of these species.
Q: Looking forward, what are IAC’s goals?
Cáceres: We want to strengthen the Convention by increasing the number of member countries, and specifically, getting more Caribbean countries involved. We must strengthen collaborative activities by signing more agreements with other relevant organizations and conventions, and we must reach out more to regional fisheries management organizations to work together without duplicating efforts. We will continue preparing technical documents to advise member countries, on their own terms, about the implementation of the convention’s objectives, ensuring that scientific information is used to make pertinent political decisions. We also need to address the crisis of the critically endangered eastern Pacific leatherback and hawksbill turtle populations, as well as prevent population declines in other species.