Indonesia: Conserving the leatherback sea turtle

Ricardo F. Tapilatu Jakarta Post 26 May 16;

For over 100 million years, leatherback sea turtles have swum the world’s oceans. Each year, these creatures, which represent the last remaining members of the Dermochelyidae family, migrate 6,000 miles from breeding grounds in the western Pacific to feeding areas in the eastern Pacific. California’s coast, with its plentiful jellyfish populations, is an important foraging area for leatherbacks, and the Bird’s Head Peninsula of West Papua is the major nesting area for the western Pacific population of the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle.

Pacific leatherback conservation efforts at the nesting beaches were sporadic in the 1970s, but were expanded following publication of the US Recovery Plan in 1996 and the collapse of the eastern Pacific nesting populations. More recently, after the discovery that the leatherbacks foraging in California waters and caught in Hawaii and US West coast-based fisheries were from the western Pacific, bilateral conservation efforts have intensified.

In 2012 the US National Marine Fisheries Service designated 41,914 square miles off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington as critical habitat for leatherbacks. Thus any actions authorized, funded or implemented by Federal agencies should not put the species’ existence in jeopardy or otherwise negatively impact its critical habitat. Additionally, the California State Assembly and Senate have declared the Pacific leatherback as a California state marine reptile.

In the western Pacific, Jamursba Medi and Wermon beaches in Bird’s Head peninsula, West Papua, represent the last two major nesting sites for the Western Pacific leatherbacks. Dedicated Indonesian environmentalists, from WWF, and since 2000, UNIPA, in collaboration with the National Marine Fisheries Service ( Southwest Fisheries Science Center ), has spearheaded local training, monitoring, patrolling, and managing efforts to protect nesting sites, despite limited financial capacity.

Priority actions for the Western Pacific have been outlined in the Bellagio document and in the tri-national agreement between Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. A science-based beach management plan has been evaluated and implemented, and continues to be modified as more data are collected, to ensure effective protection of nests and maximized hatchling output.

Currently, the State University of Papua is the leading Indonesian institution, developing and implementing the research and conservation plan through local stakeholder partnerships.

This partnership with local stakeholders was established to address major problems caused by multiple groups being independently engaged in beach monitoring and conservation activities in Papua, which resulted in confusion for the local villagers and stakeholders, duplication of conservation and management efforts, and an undermining of any effective conservation work.

Thus all interested international groups should work cohesively to address the challenges of conserving this leatherback population, to support local partnerships, and to transfer necessary skills and resources.

The recent critical habitat and California state marine reptile designations are positive steps toward achieving conservation goals and restoring sea turtle populations. Moreover, President Barack Obama in September 2014 created the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve in the central Pacific Ocean, demonstrating his increased willingness to advance a conservation agenda.

By broadening the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument from almost 87,000 square miles to more than 490,000 square miles, Obama has protected more acres of federal land and sea than any other president in at least 50 years, and makes the area off-limits to commercial fishing.

The proclamation will mean added protections for deep-sea coral reefs and other marine ecosystems that officials say are among “the most vulnerable” to the negative effects of climate change.

The document signed by Obama noted that the expanded area contains “significant objects of scientific interest that are part of this highly pristine deep sea and open ocean ecosystem with unique biodiversity”. However, this Pacific population continues to decline at a rate of 6 percent a year and the need for conservation initiatives has become critical.

Funding for local efforts has been limited to the most pressing priorities on the nesting beaches. There is a need to also address the threats identified in local coastal and oceanic waters in order to implement the holistic strategy needed to reverse the population decline.

Enhanced cooperation between Tambrauw of Bird’s Head Seascape-Indonesia and California conservationists would strengthen the work of both sides by connecting the two regions critical to the leatherback’s life cycle. Without improved international coordination, efforts to protect the leatherback will continue to be a struggle.

The writer works at the Research Center for Pacific Marine Resources, the University of Papua in Manokwari, West Papua.