SUVA. Fiji (Fiji Times, Sept. 14) – The slaughter of more than 40 turtles for the annual Methodist Church Conference in Macuata, Vanua Levu, two weeks ago has been criticised by many people passionate about the sea creatures and who fear they are facing extinction.

[PIR editor’s note: Fijilive reported on Wednesday that some 84 turtles were confirmed killed. ]

An argument raised was how such an activity was allowed when there was a moratorium in place.

WWF Fiji Program conservation manager Kesaia Tabunakawai says the moratorium is in place to allow turtle numbers to increase and to allow for a national management plan to be developed, implemented and enforced.

Ms Tabunakawai said the permit to harvest turtles during the moratorium acknowledged the customary regard for the animals and their use in traditional practices that should not be abused.

"The Ministry of Fisheries is to ensure traditional practice continues at a level that does not undermine protection, therefore safeguarding turtle numbers," she said.

While there are more than 250 turtle species in the world, in Fiji the common ones are loggerhead, hawksbill, green and leatherback turtle.

A 2003 Fiji Marine fact sheet states the loggerhead turtles, or tuvonu in Fijian, is an endangered species and has a nesting population in Fiji of 60 females while the global number is 60,000 females.

There were about 100 females of another endangered species green turtle known as vonu dina which was widely hunted for its meat.

The nesting population for the hawksbill turtle, known as taku, and widely hunted for its shell, stood at 150-200 females while the population for the leatherback turtle, or vonudakulaca, was unknown.

Ms Tabunakawai said turtles could only be taken under a permit issued by the Department of Fisheries on approval of the minister.

"It is understood that turtle harvests are only allowed to meet traditional obligations," Ms Tabunakawai said. "The permit system is a means to monitor takes. This is the only allowable take. Any other take is illegal and if it is done, harvesters, sellers and buyers are all acting against the moratorium when it is in place."

She said everyone was a stakeholder and steward in the safeguarding of our natural heritage.

"This includes all the marine life and all that lives in it, forests and waterways as well as all that live in and on it," she said. "As such we all are responsible for policing their protection whether one is a resource owner or not, a user, a fisheries officer or not, a conservationist or not."

Ms Tabunakawai said where it was known that a particular species was declining in number, it was in the best interest of future generations to look after its protection.

She said that sadly the law in Fiji was not effective, judging from reports of illegal catches and sales which were rumoured to be happening.

The WWF has called for enforcement of existing laws and provisions and for the monitoring authority to set an example of the consequences of not complying with the moratorium, by at least taking people to court for infringement.

Fisheries director Commander Sanaila Naqali has not responded to questions on penalties sent to his office yesterday.

It is unclear what the penalty could be for breaching a permit in circumstances such as in Macuata where only three were permitted to be killed but more than 44 are said to have ended up in cooking pots and served as a chiefly delicacy.

The Fiji moratorium on molesting, taking or killing of turtles came into effect in March 2004 and expires on December 31, 2008.

According to the moratorium, people caught harvesting turtles, molesting them or killing the eggs without a permit may be prosecuted and face three to six months in prison and a fine of up to FJ$500.

Anyone caught selling turtles can be fined FJ$20,000 or face a prison sentence of five years.

Turtles are capable of living for more than 80 years. A female turtle, upon reaching maturity at the age of more than 30, returns to the land or the beach to lay their eggs. Turtles lay their eggs in chambers dug by the nester and incubation period is around two months.

Ms Tabunakawai said a five-year moratorium was not sufficient, given that turtles took an average of 40 years to mature and become capable of reproduction.

"Sufficient time allowing for turtle populations to recover is absolutely crucial," she said.

She said turtles were a migratory species not confined to one nation and those slaughtered here could be part of nesting populations from other Pacific islands.

"A key example is that of Lady Vini a female hawksbill turtle that was released in Samoa (March 2007) and took approximately seven months to travel to Fiji," she said.

"Much publicity was created around this to highlight the importance of Fiji as a feeding hotspot and to underline the migratory nature of these animals."

In light of the situation faced by turtles, permits allowing for traditional harvest were almost a luxury and should not be abused, said Ms Tabunakawai.

"Having existed with and outliving the dinosaurs, turtles are now threatened with extinction," she said.

The Wikipedia internet encyclopedia says even though many spend large amounts of their lives underwater, all turtles are air-breathing reptiles and must surface at regular intervals to breathe.

Turtles lay eggs like other reptiles and the eggs are slightly soft and leathery.

The eggs of the largest species are spherical while the eggs of the rest are elongated.

Turtle eggs prepared to eat consist mainly of yolk.

In some species, temperature determines whether an egg develops into a male or a female with a higher temperature causing a female and lower temperature a male.

Large numbers of eggs are deposited in holes dug into mud or sand. They are then covered and left to incubate by themselves.

When the turtles hatch they squirm their way to the surface and go for the water.

There are no known species where the mother cares for the young. Often turtles only breed every few years.

Researchers have recently discovered a turtle's organs do not gradually break down or become less efficient over time unlike most other animals.

It was found that the liver, lungs and kidneys of a centenarian turtle are virtually indistinguishable from those of its immature counterpart.

This has inspired genetic researchers to begin examining the turtle genome for longevity genes.

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