Sea Turtles a Flash Point in South China Sea Dispute

Philippines Arrests Fishermen Accused of Poaching Endangered Species
Cris Larano Asian Wall Street Journal 7 May 14;

MANILA—How did turtles become a flash point in the territorial spat in the South China Sea? Many would argue that it's because the endangered creatures are worth a fight.

In the Philippines—where five of the world's seven species of sea turtle live—poaching sea turtles is a crime that can come with up to 12 years in prison and fines of up to $22,500, depending on the type of turtle. Still, poachers seek them out for their meat, which is believed in some cultures to enhance virility, and their shells, which are used for jewelry.

On Wednesday, the Philippines arrested the crew of a Chinese fishing vessel near the disputed Spratly Islands after receiving reports of poachers in the area. The Chinese vessel contained around 500 sea turtles, some of them dead, the police said. The arrest prompted rebuke from Beijing, which called on the Philippines to release the crew.

In recent years, other Chinese fishermen have been caught by Philippine authorities for poaching turtles or other endangered species such as clams and anteaters.

"Even if those turtles didn't come from the Philippines, [the alleged poachers] could still be prosecuted here because sea turtles are globally protected animals," said Theresa Mundita Lim, director of the Biodiversity Management Bureau of the Philippines' Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The Southeast Asian country is a hotbed for poaching. Ms. Lim said all five species of sea turtles in the country are considered endangered, but more so the Hawksbill and Leatherback that are valued for their shells, which are used for ornaments and jewelry.

The other species found in the country are the Olive Ridley, Green Sea Turtle and the Loggerhead. The two other species not found in the Philippines are Kemp's Ridley and the Flatback. Leatherback and Hawksbill are considered the most threatened by possible extinction.

It takes decades before a sea turtle reaches maturity, and only then will females breed and return to the beaches where they hatched to lay their eggs. Aside from natural predators, including humans, loss of habitat and other environmental threats mean as few as one in every 1,000 hatchlings will reach adulthood. Each female can lay as many as 150 eggs per clutch, and can lay several times a season.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, poachers take around 30,000 green turtles in California alone while more than 50,000 sea turtles are killed in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. In the 1960s, over a million Olive Ridley turtles were butchered in Mexico.

Sea turtle eggs are considered an aphrodisiac in some countries, including China, and eaten raw or sold as snacks in bars and restaurants, WWF said.

Chinese and other East Asian cuisines use the meat, skin and innards of soft-shell turtles for soup. Turtles are also used in Chinese medicine. Japan is a major buyer of sea turtle shells, known as bekko.