Marine turtles are of significant cultural importance in Fiji. They play a part in many traditional ceremonies and are the subject of many stories and local legends. Turtles have been and still are hunted and consumed in many parts of Fiji, which partly contributed to and partly caused the steep decline of marine turtles in Fiji over the past decades. In the 1800s, the international trade of turtle meat and shells significantly contributed to Fiji’s economy, with especially the Asian market driving demand. But a local industry existed as well, creating artefacts from turtle shells and trading meat on local markets until 25 years ago when Fiji placed a moratorium on marine turtle catches (Laveti & MacKay, 2009).
Globally, there are seven species of marine turtles, five of which exist in Fiji, and all of them are threatened:
The reproductive behaviour of all marine turtles is similar in that females of all species return to the same beaches where they hatched to lay their eggs once they mature. This makes it very important to find and protect turtle-nesting beaches across the tropics, especially given the declining populations of all species throughout their distribution range. If these beaches are destroyed, too many adult females are killed, or too many eggs are harvested, populations will eventually decline.
On top of that, only 1 in 100 turtle hatchlings are believed to make it to adulthood. Life as a baby turtle is hard, and as long as they’re small, turtles are vulnerable and easy prey for many predators. But adults are facing many challenges, too. Factors such as overharvesting through intentional targeting or bycatch, environmental stress including increasing plastic pollution (which turtles mistake for jellyfish, ingest and may die if the consequences), and habitat destruction of nesting beaches have all combined led to the worrying conservation status of each species ranging from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered as assessed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Since 1995, the Fiji Government has implemented three different turtle moratoriums in order to prevent their dwindling numbers from completely collapsing. A one-year ban on turtle harvesting was declared in 1995, and another three-year ban was from 1997 to 2000 (Laveti & MacKay, 2009).
In 2004, the Fisheries Act was amended, effectively anchoring a moratorium into law from February 2004 until 31 December 2008. It prohibited the killing of turtles, digging and poaching of eggs, and all turtle flesh and shell sales. However, the amendment also included a provision for an exemption for indigenous communities to harvest turtles for traditional purposes.
Subsequently, in 2010, the Government implemented the Fiji Sea Turtle Recovery Plan and declared a nearly ten-year moratorium until 31.12.2018, extending the previously ended moratorium. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find more details about the Fiji Sea Turtle Recovery Plan online despite seeing it mentioned on various pages, including SPREP and the UN. If anyone can point me to where I can find it, please let me know in the comment section below.
Overall the laws in Fiji are a little confusing (at least to me), with several amendments over the years and public notices that require quite a bit of research to stay on top of. To my understanding, the harvest of sea turtles is prohibited with or without any temporary moratorium.
The Offshore Fisheries Management Regulation passed in 2014 states that the killing and trading of endangered or protected marine species listed on Appendix I or II of CITES (Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is prohibited. By 1981, all seven species of marine turtles were listed in Appendix 1.
But in 2019, any uncertainty about turtle regulations was eliminated: A public notice issued by the Fijian Ministry of Fisheries dated 24th January 2019, so less than a month after the ten-year moratorium ended, reiterated the total ban on the harvest, sale, possession and transport of sea turtles, their eggs or any part or product.Public-Notice-Ministry-of-Fisheries-pdf
Under the regulation, individuals caught breaking the ban can face an instant fine of $10,000 with the potential of up to $50,000. For corporations, an instant fine of $20,000 with the potential of up to $100,000.
Interestingly, this notice does specifically exclude any expedition under point 7: “The current provisions of the OFMR DO NOT allow for any exemptions to this ban, nor for permits to be issued by the Ministry of Fisheries for the harvest of any sea turtle, under any circumstances.”
As with all laws in all parts of society, they are only as strong as their enforcement. Enforcing this ban in Fiji is extremely challenging due to the geographical remoteness of many communities, limited Fisheries resources, and to start with the missing awareness of the ban. I have been to various communities since 2015, where I either saw turtles being consumed or hunted or was told it is still happening on a more or less frequent basis.
While an exemption for traditional purposes used to be granted, that has changed in 2019 with the above-mentioned notice and technically, any turtle harvesting is strictly illegal. However, most communities will simply not have heard about this notice nor received any direct information about the updated regulations.
As several NGOs in Fiji and the Fijian Ministry of Fisheries are working on turtle conservation initiatives, projects and strategies, it remains to be seen how the communication of the existing laws in Fiji will progress, how enforcement will be carried out and if further amendments to the law will be made in future. I am hopeful, though, and I think that things are moving in the right direction.
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Tom Vierus is an award-winning photographer, filmmaker, and marine biologist based in Suva, Fiji Islands. This blog is dedicated to his assignments and to sharing some behind-the-scenes footage.