BY EMOSI LASAQA-Mamanuca Environment Society

The first journey of just-hatched fragile baby sea turtles, struggling to get to the relative safety of the ocean, is often fraught with dangers.

Imagine hundreds of baby turtles struggling out of their sandy nest and instinctively heading towards the glow of the sea. It’s a sight familiar to many fans of nature documentaries, but seen less often with our naked eyes.

Birds and land mammals swoop down on the baby turtles, reducing numbers by as much as 80%. The bulk of sea turtles never make it through their first day alive.

According to research, only about 25 per cent are likely to survive their first year in the ocean and only one of those hundred eggs reach their adult size despite all the spotlights from many conservation groups worldwide.

And then there are our local fishermen, who are required to present turtles in any traditional gathering to their chief. It is their obligation as demanded by some age-old tradition.

Over the years, thousands of sea turtles are slaughtered in the name of traditional feasts in our communal community. The feast, as they say is not complete without the turtle meat.

Even Turtle eggs remain a delicacy in most coastal villages.

In the picturesque Mamanuca Group of Islands littered with resorts, backpackers and private coves, the Mamanuca Environment Society (MES), formed in 2001 stepped in to intervene.

The journey began in 2006, with Institute of Marine Research (IMR-USP) through an Australian Grant to do research on Sea turtles in the Mamanucas.

Mr Salusalu said the outcome of the research highlighted that there was a need to initiate a project that would address issues like turtle harvesting, protecting nesting beach and foraging grounds for sea turtle and creating awareness to the stakeholders on the Mamanucas.

“So in 2008, MES in collaboration with IMR wrote in a proposal for a Mamanuca Sea Turtle Conservation project through the UNDP Global Environment Facility (GEF ) Small Grant programme for USD$50,000.00. That’s when the real deal started.”

The project code named The Mamanuca Sea Turtle Conservation was a two years project but was extended toward the end of December 2012.

Mr Salusalu said World Turtle Day, celebrated annually on 23 May, is a great day to stop, pause and think about the world’s turtle species.

As the society is approaching the end of the project timeline, MES, he said, did achieve the three major out comes of the project which is:

  • Best Practice Guideline Policy for Resort
  • Community-Based Management Plan for Communities
  • Community Strategy for implementing Awareness through Stake holders

“The Best Practices Guideline Policy document is the first ever to be created for any Sea Turtle Conservation around the Pacific Islands and also the first for the Fiji Islands. We are proud of that.”

As it is with other projects, the challenges, Mr Salusalu said were many.

“Working with the communities and getting them to understand the project is a challenge in itself knowing that this something that is always part of their diet every day and is always hard to let go.  Getting them to learn and understand is another challenge which really makes this project very interesting and successful.”

But later in the progress of the project the people of Malolo and Mamanuca realised the need to save these sea turtles.

“The Next step toward the project is to implement the outcomes of the project through these stakeholders. These ancient creatures evolved before mammals, birds, snakes, or lizards. Biologists believe that turtles have managed to outlive many other species due to the unique protection provided by their shells.

“All species of sea turtle are listed as threatened or endangered. Two species that frequent the Mamanuca waters either for foraging, nesting or just transiting are the Hawksbill (vonu taku) listed as critically endangered and the Green Turtle (vonu dina) listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).”

“Please save our turtles,” Mr Salusalu says.

Turtle Conservation Fiji - MES Fiji