Department of Environmental Affairs marks World Turtle Day
23 May 2019
Today, South Africa joined the rest the world in celebrating World Turtle Day. The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has recommitted itself to increase efforts to protect marine turtles. There are seven species of marine turtles in the world, five of which have been recorded in South Africa. These are the Leatherback, Loggerhead, Green, Hawksbill and the rarely seen Olive Ridley turtles. All species are listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species and the Threatened or Protected Marine Species Regulations. Furthermore, South Africa is signatory to the MoU on the Conservation and Management of Marine Turtles and their Habitats of the Indian Ocean and South-East Asia (IOSEA MoU) which South Africa signed in 2005 as well as the MoU concerning the Conservation Measures for Marine Turtles of the Atlantic Coast of Africa signed in 2007.
The Leatherback and the Loggerhead turtles nest in iSimangaliso Wetland Park. These nesting beaches are of critical importance to these turtles because of their genetic distinction from other rookeries of the same species in the Western Indian Ocean. iSimangaliso is a World Heritage Site and is also one of the sites of importance for sea turtle conservation.
Sea turtles have ecological roles in influencing community diversity and structure by operating at multiple trophic levels as predators, prey, competitors, nutrient transporters and are habitat modifiers. They also enhance benthic diversity, e.g. by feeding on sponges thus reducing their coverage of reefs that facilitate the growth of corals. They are ideal sentinel species for ecosystem changes because they are migratory and use a range of habitats throughout their lives and interact with various threats.
Sea turtles are long-lived and can take many years to reach breeding age (e.g. loggerhead females first reproduce between 17 and 33 years of age), and may nest every few years rather than annually. They are impacted by numerous threats such as degradation of coastal and marine habitats, oil spills as well as water quality. Other impacts include diseases or parasite infestation and predation by land-based predators. Incidental capture (by-catch) in fishery practices (i.e. shark nets, purse seine and longliners) has over the years been considered one of the major threat, however, plastic pollution is seen as the greatest “new” threat.
There are substantial steps taken nationally to reduce incidental capture and mortality of turtles in fisheries. Some measures to reduce by-catch of sea turtles include stricter permit conditions, modification to gear such as turtle excluder devices, data collection and an increase in observer coverage which has been stratified by area, season and vessel. Observers are also trained in turtle identification and handling practices. Regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs) have adopted a more precautionary approach to the conservation of targeted and non-targeted species as well as resolutions to promote the adoption of FAO’s “Guidelines to Reduce Sea Turtle Mortality in Fishing Operations.”
Recently, marine plastic debris has been the talking point high up on the international environmental agenda and national concern. More than 300 million tons of plastics are produced annually, making it one of the most widely used materials worldwide. Plastics are not easily biodegradable and ultimately finding their way into our rivers and oceans.
Sea turtles are susceptible and vulnerable to plastic pollution. They spend most of their time in the top 20m of the ocean, where most plastic floats. Plastic litter, particularly plastic bags and other food packaging items resemble food such as blue bottles, jellyfish and seaweed that are ingested and obstruct the stomach of a turtle, causing a slow and painful death.
Over the last few years, there have been numerous interventions that would benefit the conservation of marine species, including sea turtles:
- The Department is in the process of increasing its network of marine protected areas (MPAs) with 20 new ones that would increase the representation of South Africa’s rich coastal and ocean biodiversity as well extend protection to offshore ecosystems. This will increase the protection of the ocean around South Africa from 0.4 to 5%.
- Coastal Ecotourism which includes Turtle tours help create awareness on turtle conservation within the local communities and for tourists and can assist in enhancing the local economy. Viewing of nesting sea turtles as well as hatchlings first-hand can provide an intrinsic value of nature as well as direct output on the value of conservation programmes.
- The Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries has introduced a wide range of measures to reduce turtle by-catch, particularly in the Longline Fisheries. Data from observers suggest that turtle by-catch has decreased by 80% in the last decade and survival has increased to 96%.
- President Cyril Ramaphosa recently launched the Good Green Deeds programme which aims to promote a South Africa that is clean of litter and illegal dumping and urges citizens to adopt sustainable living practices through responsible management of waste. Furthermore, the Department continues to address the growing concern of litter from inland river systems, including catchment systems, therefore reducing marine litter.
The Department would like to urge all to join the world in celebrating these incredible species, and help take action in protecting them and their habitats.
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