Agreement for the conservation of sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua

Agreement for the conservation of sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua

Lucinda K. Taft1 and Roxana Silman2
1 Caribbean Conservation Corporation, Gainesville, Florida, USA
2 Caribbean Conservation Corporation, San Jose, Costa Rica

Trilateral negotiations for the adoption of the ÒCooperative Agreement for the Conservation of Sea Turtles of the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panamaó commenced in December 1997 in San Jos., Costa Rica, and were completed in March 1998 in Panama City, Panama. Additional revisions were made to the document at NicaraguaÕs request, during the final review process by the environmental authorities and the chancelleries in each nation. The finalized cooperative agreement was signed on 8 May 1998 in San Jose, Costa Rica, following the inaugural ceremonies of new Costa Rican President Miguel Angel Rodr.guez as the first order of business of his government. President Ernesto P.rez Balladares of Panama and President Rodr.guez both expressed their intentions to collaborate for the protection of the sea turtle resources shared by their nations. President Arnoldo Alem.n of Nicaragua did not attend the signing ceremony and to date, no explanation for NicaraguaÕs refusal to sign the agreement has been provided to the parties. Efforts are underway to fund and commence implementation of the agreement in Panama and Costa Rica, and attempts to re-engage Nicaragua in the cooperative agreement are being promoted. The new agreement calls for the Parties to establish a regional system of protected habitats based upon the biological requirements of sea turtles specific to these three countries, including nesting beaches and marine habitats. Implementation and enforcement duties are assigned to a nine-member Regional Committee, with representatives from the civil sector and from environmental and fishery sectors of the government agencies.

The ability of sea turtles to migrate great distances across the oceans is well documented. Tags returned from turtles using the beaches of Costa Rica and waters of Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua have been recovered from throughout the western Atlantic Ocean. Evidence for the shared use of the beaches and waters of Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua is particularly compelling.

Adult green turtles (Chelonia mydas) that migrate through the waters of Bocas del Toro Province, Panama, feed in the waters of Miskito Cays, Nicaragua and nest at Tortuguero, Costa Rica. Panama provides the courtship stations, developmental habitat and a migratory corridor for green turtles; Costa Rica provides the nesting beach; Nicaragua provides developmental habitat and adult foraging range. The three countries also share populations of other species of endangered sea turtles, such as the hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and the leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea).

History – The San Jose Agreement Of 1969
Discussions concerning the need for trilateral cooperation in green turtle management can be traced back to 1969, and the ÒTripartite Meeting on the Green Turtle.ó This meeting brought together high level fisheries officials from the three countries to discuss the findings of Dr. Archie Carr and his colleagues concerning the importance of all three countries to the survival of the green turtle. The meeting concluded that harvesting of turtle eggs and adults from the beaches and marine areas in all three countries was jeopardizing the species and called for: (1) a suspension of green turtle exploitation for commercial or industrial purposes for a period of three years pending the development of a management plan for the sustained yield of the species; (2) a prohibition of all trade in green turtles, their parts and their eggs, for a period of three years; (3) the establishment of a control mechanism in each country to achieve the objectives of this agreement; and, (4) making all information about status of green turtle populations and their habitats available to the Maritime Fishery Services of the participating countries and to conduct annual meetings to evaluate this information and make recommendations.

A draft agreement was prepared and signed by Costa Rica and Panama. The countries did not formally adopt this agreement due to Nicaragua’s concerns for its effect on the construction and operation of turtle processing plants on the Atlantic coast, until this activity was stopped by CITES legislation in 1976.

In the interim, the biological justification for regional cooperation has continued to grow as researchers have developed the data to demonstrate the interdependency of this shared population of green turtles on the beaches and marine areas of each country through one or more stages of its life history. At the same time domestic trade and subsistence uses of sea turtles along the Caribbean Coast have presented new threats to the continued existence of the green turtle, as well as the hawksbill and leatherback populations that inhabit all three countries.

Summary of the New Cooperative Agreement
The new Cooperative Agreement for the Conservation of Sea Turtles of the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama provides a framework for a coordinated and systematic multinational approach to the conservation of sea turtles. It is based on the premise that these nations share the responsibility for certain sea turtle populations that cannot be managed independently.

The Agreement calls for the Parties to establish a regional system of protected habitats based upon the biological requirements of sea turtles specific to these three countries, including nesting beaches and marine habitats. Implementation and enforcement duties are assigned to a Regional Committee with representatives from the civil, environmental and fishery sectors of each nation. The environmental sector in Costa Rica was given the responsibility of establishing a permanent office and providing two full-time officials for the implementation of the agreement.

In order to maintain its focus on regional habitat protection and management, the agreement defers to CITES and to the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles (the Salvador Convention) with respect to issues concerning turtle excluder devices (TEDs) and international trade. The Agreement will serve as a subregional mechanism for implementation of the recently concluded Salvador Convention as well as the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (the Bonn Convention). Some of the important components of the new agreement are as follows:

Regional Committee for the Conservation of Sea Turtles of the Western Caribbean. The Committee is given the responsibility of implementing the agreement. The Committee will establish and oversee an Executive Secretariat which will carry out the functions outlined in the agreement. The fund-raising capability of the Executive Secretariat shall be developed.
Regional Management Plan. The Parties shall prepare a Regional Management Plan which shall propose a coastal and marine protected area system for the effective protection of sea turtles in all phases of their life cycle. The Plan will also include an agenda for research priorities and standardized monitoring protocols, as well as stipulations for sustainable use of the species taking into account the population biology of sea turtles and the socioeconomic aspects of sea turtle stakeholders.
Obligations to Conserve Habitats. The Parties will identify the nesting beaches and marine habitats of importance to sea turtles in the three nations and list them in annexes to the agreement. Once listed, the Parties must establish legal and administrative instruments to manage these habitats.
Provisions for Sustainable Use. Will be considered in the regional management planning process, which will include public participation mechanisms.
Research, Training and Environmental Education. The Parties must facilitate research and dissemination of results required for the management and conservation of sea turtles. The Parties shall also facilitate training programs on sea turtle management at the regional level, and shall promote socioeconomic investigation in communities for the purpose of seeking viable alternative economic income sources and reducing pressure on the resource.
Monitoring and Compliance. The agreement requires each Party to establish national legislation that will guarantee compliance with the terms of the agreement, and to collaborate to ensure compliance at the regional level. There are also provisions to include sea turtle conservation in school curriculums and to publish and distribute educational materials about sea turtles.
Coordination and International Cooperation. The agreement allows other countries to become Parties, and it promotes the adoption of laws and regulations in non-party states that conform to those stipulated in the agreement. International cooperation for technology transfer and experience exchange is encouraged.

Technical assistance for the development of the cooperative agreement was provided by the following individuals: Erasmo Vallester, Luis Mou, Dimas Botello, Kruskaya de Melgarejo, Alfonso Vaz, and Bolivar Zambrano (Instituto de Recursos Naturales Renovables, Panam.); Marco Antonio Solano, Manfred Peters and Vice- Minister Carlos Manuel Rodr.guez (Ministerio del Ambiente y Energia, Costa Rica); Minister Roberto Stadthagan, Carlos Jos. Peres-Rom.n and Ivan Ortega (Ministerio de Recursos Naturales y el Ambiente, Nicaragua); Chris Wold (Center for International Environmental Law, Washington); Tom Ankersen (Mesoamerican Environmental Law Program/Univ. of Florida, College of Law); Anne Meylan (Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection); Peter Meylan (Eckerd College); Jeanne Mortimer (CCC, Ministry of Environment, Rep. of Seychelles); Lizbeth Espinoza and Rolando Castro (Centro de Derecho Ambiental y Recursos Naturales); Mario Boza, Archie Carr III and Clara Padilla (Wildlife Conservation Society); Denis Castro (Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua); Jaime Incer (Fundaci.n Cocibolca); Didiher Chac.n (ANAI/Costa Rica); Laurence Gumbiner and Carolina Mauri (U.S. Embassy/Costa Rica). Financial support was provided by The Homeland Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, PROARCA/CAPAS (USAID) and PROARCA/Costas (USAID), Univ. of Florida/Law/Mesoamerican Environmental Law Program, the Wildlife Conservation Society and Caribbean Conservation Corporation. A special note of thanks are extended to President Miguel Angel Rodr.guez Echeverr.a of Costa Rica and President Ernesto P.rez Balladares of Panama for their support and acceptance of the initiative and their commitment to collaborative management of Caribbean sea turtles.

Abstract of paper presented at 19th International Symposium, 1999