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PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (January 7, 1999 - Post-Courier)---Six green turtles were saved from cooking pots and set free in a major operation in Port Moresby yesterday.

Yesterday's operation involved personnel from the Defense Forces sea element, police, National Fisheries Authority (NFA) and Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC).

The turtles were confiscated from local people at Taikone, near Vabukori, National Capital District and released in the sea at Basilisk Passage outside the harbor.

The exercise was triggered after a tip from a Taikone resident.

The officers said the turtles were caught at Bramble Cay, a protected uninhabited island in the Torres Strait.

They were brought to Port Moresby a week ago on a ship allegedly owned by a logging company.

It was alleged that the ship's captain from PNG (his identity is being withheld) had gone to the island with some companions and caught the turtles.

A senior officer from NFA said that a large number of female turtles assemble on the island between the months of October and December to lay eggs.

"Only local people are allowed to catch turtles there, using traditional means. They cannot catch them for commercial purposes,'' he said.

Another officer from NFA told the Post-Courier the villagers had alleged that the same captain had brought in 14 turtles from there sometime last year. The claim could not be confirmed.

Of the 16 turtles brought in this time, only seven of them were confiscated by the officers from DEC and the Fisheries Authority.

The rest were either slaughtered and eaten or sold.

The seventh one died before the officers got there on Tuesday. The remaining six were taken and freed at sea yesterday.

Senior surveillance officer from NFA, Lakani Pelei, said that Papua New Guinea laws allow local people to catch turtles using traditional fishing methods and only for their own consumption.

An officer from NFA said that turtles begin laying eggs only after they are 30 to 50 years old and estimated that those released, weighing more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds), were more than 50 years old.

He said NFA contacted the Environment Australia organization when they got the turtles and were advised to put them back into the water as soon as possible.

Officers from the PNG Defense Force's sea element used the barge HMPNGS Salamaua to take the turtles and drop them back into the sea at Basilisk Passage.

They were accompanied by DEC and NFA officers and news reporters.

Both Mr. Lakani and marine biologist from the Department of Environment and Conservation, Job Opu, said that the captain of the ship that brought the turtles will be interviewed and legal action could be taken later.

Mr. Opu said: "We will leave this to fisheries and customs, since these turtles are from Australia, to take legal action.

"We are here because we are concerned and are helping release them as soon as possible.''

Another source from NFA said the penalties for catching turtles includes paying a high fine, but this will depend on the charges.

"Turtles migrate long distances and this stock comes from Indonesia and Australia,'' he said.

"Turtles always go back to where they hatched to lay their eggs every five or six years.''

For additional reports from The Post-Courier, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Post-Courier (Papua New Guinea).

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