Turtles Need a Pacific Oceanscape as Much as People Do

TURTLE HATCHLING, NEW CALEDONIA © CREDIT: THE OCEAN AGENCY / CORAL REEF IMAGE BANK

TURTLE HATCHLING, NEW CALEDONIA © CREDIT: THE OCEAN AGENCY / CORAL REEF IMAGE BANK

By MICHAEL DONOGHUE, SUE TAEI, and LUI BELL

For millennia, people have depended on the ocean and its resources. But with declining fishery resources, rising sea levels, warming ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, and pollution, the oceans are changing rapidly. Those changes will affect us all but are particularly threatening to the way of life for Pacific Islanders; indeed, the changes jeopardize the very existence of some Pacific Island nations. Addressing the extensive threats to the health of the Pacific Ocean and of those who depend upon it most directly requires immediate, collective, and concerted action at a large scale.

The concept of the Pacific Oceanscape—a framework for longterm, sustainable, cooperative management of a vast marine area in the Pacific Islands—has rapidly advanced over the past three years and now has the full support of all 16 Pacific Island states, having been endorsed by their heads of state at the past two meetings of the Pacific Islands Forum. Scattered over a vast expanse of ocean, the roughly 1,400 islands of the Pacific Islands are (with the noteworthy exception of Papua New Guinea) mostly tiny land masses with small populations, but they are also large ocean states with management authority over enormous Exclusive Economic Zones.

Covering an ocean area of nearly 40 million square kilometers (16 million square miles, or larger than the areas of Canada, Russia, and the United States combined), the Pacific Oceanscape hosts globally significant populations of several species of marine turtles— notably greens, hawksbills, and leatherbacks, as well as smaller populations of olive ridleys and loggerheads. As ocean voyagers connecting these specks of land in a vast ocean, marine turtles have become an integral part of the culture of the Pacific. They are widely regarded as flagship species for Pacific marine ecosystems and often feature prominently in promotional tourist materials for many Pacific Island countries. Maintaining healthy stocks of turtles and facilitating the recovery of depleted populations will be an important indicator of the health of the Pacific Ocean itself.

Through the efforts of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), concern about declining turtle populations and interest in sea turtle conservation have grown in the region in recent years. SPREP has developed a five-year regional action plan for marine turtles (2008–2012), which will shortly come up for renewal. A regional turtle database has also been recently reestablished with funding from the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council. The SPREP action plan highlights the most significant threats to turtles throughout this vast region, including unsustainable harvest, predation by feral animals, habitat loss, boat strikes, pollution, and climate change. The plan also identifies significant barriers to turtle conservation in the region, including information gaps, inadequate laws and policies, limited capacity for monitoring, and inadequate involvement of local communities in conservation efforts.

The Pacific Oceanscape will aim to address such threats directly and to improve capacity for sea turtle conservation through its “Ocean Voyagers” component, which deals specifically with sea turtles and other migratory species. In addition, the Oceanscape concept has brought together high-level political leaders from throughout the region who appreciate the need for concerted and coordinated action to improve ocean health as a means of providing sustainable livelihoods to the region’s inhabitants. Such high-level political engagement is likely to lead to greater efforts to curb traditional consumption of turtle products and other unsustainable behaviors that have been previously difficult to address. As the Pacific Ocean-scape continues to develop, SPREP, Conservation International, and other regional partners intend to play an important role in helping Pacific Island states achieve those ambitious goals and are optimistic that the Oceanscape will bring great benefits to the people—and turtles—of the Pacific Islands.