Nature reserve to save sea turtles from extinction

The plight of sea turtles

Sea turtles aren’t just the marine world’s largest reptile. They are one of the oldest surviving forms of life, having lived alongside the dinosaurs.

Sea turtles return to the ocean on hatching, and spend their entire lives at sea, except when female turtles come on land to lay eggs. But they are often active in areas of human activity and so face various hazards.

Globally, important habitats such as nesting grounds are being lost and sources of food are shrinking. Turtles are trapped and killed to be traded illegally, inadvertently caught in fishing nets, and at risk from marine litter and pollution.

Live: China releases its first sea turtles of 2019 - CGTN
Photo: Saved sea turtles, released into the wild from the Sea Turtle Nature Reserve in south China’s Guangdong Province.

Meanwhile, climate change is causing huge changes to the environment sea turtles live in: temperature rises are melting glaciers and other forms of ice, causing sea levels to rise and shrinking the beaches sea turtles nest on. Temperature rises are changing the ratio between males and females: when eggs are buried in sand with an average temperature warmer than 29.3C the majority of hatchlings are female.

Turtle 34474, also known as Kimi, was one of five sea turtles tracked by the China Sea Turtle Conservation Alliance. In addition, researchers with Beijing-based Global Environmental Institute (GEI) summarised data on 70 tagged sea turtles and developed a report titled “China’s Sea Turtles Status and Conservation Advice”. This provides turtle conservationists with information on where the creatures are most active, helping managers understand the challenges and identify solutions, as well as supporting planning for sea turtle conservation at the national level.

GEI is also working with the local government at Qilianyu, training local fishermen and residents to work in ecotourism, rather than the fishing sector. In 2018, diving courses began to be provided.

“The local fishermen are very enthusiastic. After all, ecotourism can mean good incomes,” said Wang Jing, GEI’s marine conservation programme manager. She thinks sustainable conservation of sea turtles and the marine environment as a whole will require working with fishing communities to improve fishing behaviour and reduce by-catch of turtles. The aim is to help coastal communities develop in an environmentally friendly way.

China’s plan to save turtles

In January 2019, the Chinese government published its Sea Turtle Conservation Action Plan (2019-2033), designed to tackle the systemic challenges facing turtle conservation and provide state-level policy guidance. Similar action plans have been produced in the past for other animals, including the humpbacked dolphin, the Chinese sturgeon and the Yunnan-snub nosed monkey, which are all protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

The plan sets both short- and long-term goals covering the next 15 years. These include understanding the distribution of wild and farmed turtle populations; establishing norms and standards for artificial breeding, conservation and display of turtles; improving conservation and monitoring of turtles; and establishing new reserves in important turtle habitats.

Fishing activity is the biggest threat. The action plan’s proposed solution is to improve fishing techniques and use measures such as closed seasons to ensure turtle migratory routes are open and reduce the impact of fishing on turtle migration and nesting.

There will also be stronger regulation of fishing gear. Illegal gear, such as small mesh nets, will be confiscated, and the development of new nets that allow turtles to escape will be trialled in areas where the reptiles often end up as by-catch. Innovative nets could allow large turtles to escape, without reducing the catch of target fish species.

Xian Xianheng, an engineer in Guangzhou, says the plan’s 18 key actions, such as cracking down on the illegal trade in sea turtles and strengthening protection of habitats, should have clear timetables or responsible bodies, otherwise implementation will be affected.

Chen Min, a key member of the drafting team and a professor at East China Normal University’s School of Life Sciences, said conservation of sea turtles is a long-term and comprehensive undertaking, requiring participation from both the public and various government departments.

Only through cooperation between government departments, mobilisation of research bodies and NGOs, and the participation of the media and local fishermen can the sea turtle be protected.

The action plan, a guiding document, gives full consideration to the difficulties and timescales of implementation, covering 15 years and setting short-term (10 year) and mid- to long-term (15 year) goals, with more detailed arrangements to be set out in follow-up documents.

Source: Extract from China Dialogue Ocean, Feb 2019

National Sea Turtle Nature Reserve

In recent years, China has ramped up efforts to protect the reptile and the national sea turtle nature reserve in Huidong County is one such initiative. Located in south China’s Guangdong Province, the nature reserve has successfully bred turtles to increase their numbers and release them back to the wild.

Since April, eight captive sea turtles in the nature reserve, one of the remaining nesting sites for sea turtles in China, have laid more than 1,000 eggs during this year’s nesting season, which will last until October.

“One turtle has laid three clutches of eggs in just over a month, one of which has 196 eggs, setting a record for the spawning number of captive turtles in the nature reserve,” said Wang Shaofeng, director of the reserve administration.

Photo: The beach where wild sea turtles lay eggs in Sea Turtle Bay in Huidong County, south China’s Guangdong Province.

Edge of extinction

The sea turtle has been around since the time of the dinosaurs, and generally has a lifespan of over 200 years. Each year during the nesting season, they migrate to their birthplace to mate and lay eggs after reaching sexual maturity at about 30 to 50 years old.

The population of wild sea turtles has been on the decline in recent years due to human activities, habitat loss, accidental captures and injuries, and illegal trade.

Since its establishment in 1985, the nature reserve has rescued wild sea turtles coming ashore. These turtles have laid more than 80,000 eggs, nearly 70,000 of which were successfully hatched. The nature reserve has also released over 60,000 sea turtles into the sea over the past decades.

Earlier this year, China adjusted its list of key protected wild animals, raising the protection level of sea turtles to level I.

“It is our responsibility to protect the nature reserve and preserve the species so as to slow down or even reverse the extinction trend of the ancient reptile,” said Chen Hualing, with the reserve administration.

Breakthrough in artificial breeding

In 2017, the nature reserve made a breakthrough in the fully artificial breeding method of sea turtles. Since then, the reserve has successfully induced female turtles to come ashore and lay more than 4,500 eggs, with over 2,500 baby turtles hatched.

In 2020, the reserve opened the country’s first rewilding base to prepare captive sea turtles for their return to the wild. Prior to release, the turtles are trained on foraging in the ocean and fending for themselves.

In May, a total of 28 sea turtles returned to the nature reserve after eight months of rewilding training at the base. “These turtles, aged between two and three years, are robust and active. They will be released into the sea soon,” said Xia Zhongrong, an engineer with the reserve.

Xia is now working on turtles’ identification chips and genetic profiles. “With QR codes put on their shells, fishermen can scan the codes and report to the rescue center when they catch one by mistake,” Xia said.

“We hope to use these techniques to better monitor living conditions and migratory routes of the sea turtles, which will help our future research and conservation,” Xia added.

Photo: China’s first batch of 91 artificially-hatched green sea turtle babies struggled out of their eggs in the country’s southern province of Guangdong, July 2017

Strengthening conservation efforts

In a pool at the nature reserve, two turtles have been placed in separated “rooms.” “The two turtles were mistakenly caught by local fishermen and brought here for medical treatment,” said Li Manwen, a technician with the reserve.

Since 2001, the reserve has treated more than 1,000 injured wild sea turtles, of which 800 have been successfully cured and released into the sea.

To raise public awareness of sea turtle protection, Chinese authorities and non-governmental organizations have conducted various activities to spread awareness on sea turtle protection.

China has added more than 200,000 hectares of wetlands in the past five years in a bid to improve the marine ecological environment inhabited by sea turtles.

Under an ecological restoration project, more than 8 million mangroves have been planted in the Kaozhouyang bay, about 10 km north of the reserve, and another 50 hectares of mangroves will be added to enrich this “natural dining hall” of sea turtles.

Source: Shanghai News Net, 08 Jun 2021

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