Policy Initiatives: International Issues: CITES: A Century of Sea Turtles

A few words taken from the talk A Century of Sea Turtles given by Dr. Archie Carr, III on March 1, 2000 at the 20th Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation

“My father initiated regular surveying for tracks and nests along the 20 mile-long Tortuguero beach in 1971. Karen Bjorndal and her colleagues reported on 26 years of data obtained from these surveys in a paper appearing in February, 1999, in Conservation Biology. With carefully worded qualifications, these authors conclude that the number of green turtles nesting at Tortuguero has increased slightly but measurably over the decades. Bearing in mind that these are insights into the largest breeding colony in the Atlantic, it is very good news. In the world of sea turtles, it was a wonderful way to end the century, and my father would have been very happy to have heard about it.

I have some questions about that paper that I would like you to think about. Bjorndal et al. generously comment as follows: “The upward trend of the population gives encouragement that the stewardship of the Tortuguero green turtle nesting population by the people of Costa Rica has been successful.” That’s true. The beach was made a national park, and the killing of adults and taking of eggs from that beach has been extremely low for many, many years. Off-shore, harpooners persistently killed turtles, presumably of both sexes, throughout this time. (By the way, that practice, too, has been brought to a halt thanks to a court ruling in Costa Rica in 1999). The point is, the mortality at Costa Rica was not negligible, yet the numbers of nesting turtles increased.

Meanwhile, another of the participants at this symposium, Dr. Cynthia Lagueux, began monitoring the off-take of green turtles from the feeding grounds in Nicaragua. I’ll ask you to recall that the majority of turtles nesting at Tortuguero spend the years between nesting trips on the grass flats of northeastern Nicaragua. Mortality in Nicaragua is in excess of 10,000 animals per year. It is possible that it has never been greater. Lagueux’s data suggest the mortality rate has already made inroads into the Nicaragua stocks, as seen by, for example, decreasing average sizes of captured turtles, and increasing difficulty in capturing the turtles in the first place.

The killing at Nicaragua may be at historical heights, yet the arrivals at Tortuguero have increased slightly. How is this explained?

Accepting that it is perilous indeed to speculate about the population dynamics of the slow growing, almost invisible creatures, is it possible that the data at Tortuguero are beginning to reflect the conservation commitments of other Caribbean countries aside from Costa Rica – and certainly not Nicaragua? In the absence of international trade in green turtle products, has the taking of green turtles become reduced in what were minor, depleted grazing colonies? Are these colonies beginning to offset the mortality at Nicaragua? Given that it takes years to see a response to a given management technique for green turtles, is the apparent increase in arrivals at Tortuguero testimony to the success of CITES? You see, in my father’s early days of turtle study, it was the trade, the European and American demand for soup, that plagued the green turtle. Not local consumption. What is happening in Nicaragua is that the overseas markets have been replaced by enormous markets in coastal cities. I do not believe that has been the case elsewhere in the Caribbean. Conservation in the greater Caribbean Basin may be yielding important benefits for green turtle stocks in spite of the mortality in Nicaragua.

It would be useful to continue to analyze the apparent Tortuguero success story. In our world of conservation biology, good news is rare, and it is vital to identify and commend those responsible for it.

In the same paper by Bjorndal and colleagues where improved trends in green turtle arrivals at Tortuguero are reported, the authors mention that hawksbill turtle nesting has declined over the same period.

Same beach, same time, same management scenario. The green turtle thrives; the hawksbill declines. Just as Costa Rica is commended for the healthier green turtle stocks, should Costa Rica be condemned for the lower hawksbill arrivals? No, I don’t think so, and for the same reasons. This species, like the green turtle, is being subjected to “management,” in this case, killing, out there among what CITES calls the “range states.” The hawksbill is a migratory species whose survival requires cooperation among the states with sovereignty over waters making up the range of the species. Costa Rica, and the Tortuguero National Park, can only do so much. If the Caribbean neighbors do not participate in the recuperation efforts for this species, then it can become extinct – at Tortuguero, and elsewhere.

If CITES was helpful to the green turtle by curtailing trade in that species, then why did the same not happen for the hawksbill, a species that was highly endangered at the time of formulation of the CITES treaty? Well, in fact, the trade was altered, reduced in volume and scope, perhaps, but it never ceased. Some of the trade went underground, as they say. It continued illegally. Non-CITES states continued to buy and sell the tortoiseshell product. The most insatiable of all markets, Japan, continued to buy shell until 1992. At that time, Japan agreed to a moratorium on importation. A moratorium means a pause. It carries with it the presumption of resumption of the commerce.

Because the trade did not cease, as was the case for the green turtle, the hawksbill in the Caribbean is worse off now, at the beginning of a new century than when my narrative began, almost a half-century ago.

Meanwhile, among the tortoiseshell “producing” nations here in the New World, after years of reluctance, and with a few aggravating exceptions still lingering, we have seen the range states gradually closing ranks against the Japanese demand. When I was a graduate student, the quantity of shell leaving Panama was measured in tons, for example. That has stopped. Haiti remained for years a favorite interpot for transshipment of shell derived from numerous locations in the Caribbean. I don’t hear so much about that anymore. If it hasn’t stopped, the trade has become more furtive. Yet hawksbill populations remain depressed. There has been no bounce back.

When Japan opted to accept a moratorium on shell buying in 1992, instead of shutting down the tortoiseshell industry altogether, a window was left open. A hope. A chance that the market might one day resume. One state in particular in the Caribbean acted on that possibility. Hawksbill turtles in Cuba have been slaughtered consistently throughout the years since the moratorium, and the tortoiseshell hoarded, warehoused, until a small mountain of hawksbill scutes has arisen outside of Havana.

We may conclude unhappily that as a measure to restore the abundance of a species, the CITES moratorium on hawksbill trade failed to help. The turtles are dead. Whether the shell is sold or not is another matter. The turtles are already dead. The moratorium failed.

But things could get even worse for the hawksbill. As of this hour, there is a proposal before CITES, to be reviewed in Kenya at the next CITES meeting in April, to allow Cuba to sell this stockpile of tortoiseshell. The proposed recipient is, of course, Japan. There is concern that such action by CITES might lead to resumption of exploitation of hawksbill throughout the Pacific and Atlantic. It is particularly distressing that the Cuban proposal is at odds with the strongest possible recommendations of biologists from throughout the region, who, like my own organization, the Wildlife Conservation Society, are anxious to find ways to assist the Cuban scientific community resolve problems in biological conservation. This becomes difficult in an atmosphere where the principles of conservation biology are flaunted.

I went to Cuba once. It was in 1955. As you might imagine, I was with my father and the rest of the family, looking for turtles. We drove in a new red and white Dodge station wagon. There were a total of 6 children in the car – 5 Carr kids and one friend. We crossed from Key West to Havana on the ferry boat, and then drove down one coast to Santiago, and back on the other coast. My father indulged himself in his favorite research technique: Roaming through the central markets of coastal towns and villages, looking for turtles for sale, and all manner of other biota from land and sea. And interviewing fishermen. As you may know, his adventures with this style of inquiry in the nooks and crannies of the Caribbean and other places in the world were the stuff of several books during the course of his life.

Within a short while, such a trip to Cuba by an American scientist and his car load of kids would not be possible. A door was slammed. A neighbor isolated. Archie maintained a meager correspondence with some increasingly lonesome scientists, but the chance to start a robust sea turtle program on that large island vanished in 1959.

I reflect on those years, and those politics, because, had the regional scientific community been able to maintain cohesive, collegial, mutually supportive relations with Cuba, I doubt that the tortoiseshell proposal would be threatening the CITES treaty today. The proposal defies science and reason. There are scientists here tonight, friends to Cuba, who have, during the past few weeks run DNA tests on hawksbill turtles nesting at Tortuguero, Costa Rica. The haplotypes of some of these were the same as for samples taken from Cuban waters. Cuban turtles are Costa Rican turtles. Costa Rican turtles are Cuban turtles. It’s a migratory species, a shared species. No one state has exclusive sovereignty over Eretmochelys imbricata, nor the right to impair its survival in our common waters.

I hope the Cubans will set aside their dangerous proposal to CITES. I hope that the entire hemisphere can unite on the mission of saving the hawksbill, allowing it to recover its unique role on the coral reefs of the Caribbean. For the sake of turtles, and for numerous other reasons, I hope that very early in this century the doors to Cuba will reopen, and that scientists from all over will be able to work together freely to address the plight of the hawksbill, and the panoply of other environmental perturbations that cloud our shared horizon.

I would like to close with words written by my father a long time ago. I found some remarks in his first book, A Handbook of Turtles, that have to do with turtles, of course, and with time, and change, and its opposite, evolutionary conservatism. They are words about generations – the theme of this convention.

Before I start, let me be sure the younger generations know a certain famous name. Man o’ war. I will use the name, Man o’ war in this passage, and it is important for you to know that Man o’ war was possibly the fastest, most successful American race horse bred in the 20th Century.

Here Archie muses over the origins of turtles, and their destinations. Where they might be going. They are words we might want to carry with us into the new, 21st Century.

The Cenozoic came, and with it progressive drought, and the turtles joined the great hegira of swamp and forest animals to steppe and prairie, and watched again as the mammals rose to heights of evolutionary frenzy reminiscent of the dinosaurs in their day, and swept across the grasslands in an endless cavalcade of restless, warm-blooded types. Turtles went with them, as tortoises now, with high shells and columnar, elephantine feet, but always making as few compromises as possible with the new environment, for by now their architecture and their philosophy had been proved by the eons; and there is no wonder that they just kept on watching as Eohippus begat Man o’ War and a mob of irresponsible and shifty-eyed little shrews swarmed down out of the trees to chip at stones, and fidget around fires, and build atom bombs.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are those irresponsible, shifty-eyed little shrews in contemporary form. We built the atom bomb. But, before the century was over, we set it aside…almost. We entered a cold war, galvanized by the horror of a global, nuclear holocaust, and we, as a civilization, did not cross that line into devastation, as Archie hints that we might do in his words of 1952. We did that, we saved ourselves, and yet I say to you that we are in as much peril now as we ever were in the 20th Century. This will be the century of the environment. In these next few years, we, the participants in the 20th Sea Turtle Symposium, and conservation biologists like us, will hold the fate of civilization, in our hands…and in our minds. Unlike the Cold War, it is not a wrong decision, or an aggressive act, that will spell our doom. It is our inaction that will spell our doom. The agents of destruction are in motion now. We can see that in our turtles, in the appearance of mysterious cancers, or fibropapillomas, on their bodies, derived from what was the benign sea; the very crucible of life. The turtles provide us with windows into the health of the oceans, and we already know the view through those windows is murky with biospheric danger.

This is our century. We are the conservation biologists, and this is our time, our unique opportunity to serve mankind and the natural world we love. It is a time for a new, very forceful generation of turtle people, and their allies in related fields, to use their knowledge and passion to alter the status quo of world environmental degradation. Otherwise, this will become our last century. Otherwise there will not be another chance to save our place to live.”

Archie Carr, III
March 1, 2000