The call for the management of turtle populations and the conservation of turtle species, which scientists date back to the time of the dinosaurs, is nothing new. This decade-long dialogue has been used to appeal to the minds of poachers and policymakers in the Caribbean but the hearts of many continue to be swayed by their taste buds, their desire for quick cash and the profound belief that turtle eggs and meat can resurrect dead penises and somehow resuscitate lagging ones. In the midst of these dialogues, conservation groups continue to impress upon us the often forgotten Fisheries Regulations and other concerned citizens remain steadfast with calls for the enforcement of the law.
If I did not know better, I’d say that we are serious about turtle conservation in St. Lucia. But I do know better. We are playing the game “Do as I say, not as I do”. Our actions do not reflect our words. During the turtle nesting season, we boldly proclaim conservation in the name of future generations, Eco-tourism initiatives, community-based tourism and Youth Employment. A few months later, we issue notices allowing fishers the right to capture, kill and sell the same species we are supposedly conserving.
Years ago, through a moratorium, marine turtles in St. Lucia’s waters could swim freely without the fear of being whisked away. Poaching was prevalent particularly in the secluded rural areas but there was “no open season”. Today, the presence of what is known as the turtle fishery is one of the threats to the survival of marine turtles in St. Lucia.
Dr. Marie Louise Felix, a former Fisheries Biologist, recognizes the end of the moratorium as one of the hindrances in the fight to conserve marine turtles: “The moratorium was ended in the absence of proper scientific research to assess the state of recovery of the marine turtles and without the development of a management plan for the turtles which includes a monitoring programme to assess the impact of various fishing levels on turtle populations.”
Dr. Felix, who is knowledgeable and experienced in the area of turtle conservation, labels the turtle fishery as an “irresponsible” initiative which simultaneously threatens the existing populations of turtles and undermines public sensitization drives. In her own words, “As turtles are endangered, it is irresponsible to permit harvesting of any portion of the species without conducting regular monitoring to assess population responses”. Such monitoring, of course, requires adequate human and physical resources which are seemingly not available. She cites “insufficient capacity at the Department of Fisheries” and this undoubtedly contributes to the failure in monitoring existing turtle populations. Since little is done to monitor turtle numbers and “the Department of Fisheries does not monitor catches”, Dr. Felix affirms that we are “unaware what our population size is for each specie.” With the absence of such knowledge, why do policymakers allow our turtles to be fished? Why encourage the conservation of turtles for a few months and then give permission for them to be killed in the subsequent months? Why adopt a “let them lay before we kill them” policy in the face of mounting calls for the enforcement of existing conservation laws? If we are indeed serious about turtle conservation, why endorse what is obviously a thoughtless venture?
Dr. Felix believes that “there should be a regional approach to the management of the species.” This is necessary as turtles are “migratory species” and “populations are likely to be shared with other islands.” Therefore any conservation programme should take into account the migratory nature of turtles. Perhaps this is an ideal opportunity for regional bodies such as the O.E.C.S. and WIDECAST (Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Network) to act as facilitators of such a collaboration. Our resources are few but may be more effective in a collaborative setting. Our regional governments need to ensure that their actions and policies show that they are serious about turtle conservation. Failure to tackle the issue will continue to undermine the efforts of conservationists and will not deter poachers. After all, do we not make it legal for turtles to be killed at certain times of the year?