August, 19, 2002: For much of 2002, the Sea Turtle Conservancy, then known as the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, has actively opposed a proposal from Cuba and Japan to reopen the international trade of shells taken from critically endangered hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata). Specifically, Cuba had proposed a change in regulations under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) that would allow it to sell and ship several stockpiled tons of the valuable shell to Japan. Currently, all international trade in sea turtle products is banned under CITES.
Every two and a half years, countries from around the world convene a two-week-long “Conference of the Parties” (COP) to debate and vote on proposed changes to CITES that would affect a wide range of species. Even though similar proposals had been voted down in two previous COPs, Cuba submitted a third hawksbill proposal for consideration at the COP to be held this November in Santiago, Chile. Regular readers of the Velador will recall that STC played a critical role in defeating Cuba’s last hawksbill proposal, which was voted down at the CITES conference held in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2000.
In preparation for the 2002 COP, STC staff and advisors published and distributed a detailed analysis of the Cuban proposal, including evidence showing that hawksbills killed in Cuban waters migrate from throughout the Caribbean, including from STC research sites in Bermuda and Tortuguero, Costa Rica. STC staff also participated in “regional dialogue meetings” in Mexico and the Cayman Islands, where countries from the Wider Caribbean and Latin America met to discuss CITES proposals affecting species in the region. In addition, this summer STC Scientific Director Sebastian Troëng traveled throughout Europe to discuss the Cuban proposal with CITES delegates within the influential European Union. By late summer, it appeared that STC and a handful of other international conservation groups were successfully re-building opposition to Cuba’s hawksbill trade proposal. As a final measure, STC and groups such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Species Survival Network, the Humane Society, The Ocean Conservancy and others began coordinating our lobbying efforts for the upcoming conference in Chile.
Then the unexpected happened; in August 2002, Cuba officially withdrew its proposal! The country gave no clear indication as to the reason for the withdrawal, but the move is cause for great celebration among all of us who value the protection of sea turtles, especially the critically endangered hawksbill. STC would like to commend Cuba for taking this bold step, regardless of the reasons. Clearly, opposition to the hawksbill proposal was growing. However, it is also possible that concerned scientists and experts within Cuba succeeded in bringing about a true change of heart. Regardless, STC gladly extends its hand of support for helping Cuba with any of its sea turtle research and conservation efforts. As a first step toward building relations with the scientific community in Cuba, STC selected and financially sponsored a young Cuban scientist, Douglas Crispin, to participate in our 2002 turtle research program in Tortuguero. Douglas is already in Tortuguero assisting with the nightly monitoring and tagging studies. His experiences in Tortuguero will undoubtedly be of benefit when he returns to Cuba later this fall, and STC hopes to collaborate with Douglas on future sea turtle research projects.
While STC and other groups celebrate the resolution of the hawksbill issue, a new trade proposal from the United Kingdom and the Cayman Islands poses an equally disturbing threat to sea turtles. In this case, the UK delegation is attempting to register the Cayman Turtle Farm as a legal captive-breeding facility for green turtles (Chelonia mydas). Under CITES regulations, animal parts produced in a registered captive-breeding farm are allowed to be traded internationally. Thus, if the measure is approved at the upcoming COP, the Cayman Turtle Farm would become the world’s only legal source for internationally traded green turtle products.
Since its founding in 1959, STC has been dedicated to studying and protecting sea turtles, especially the Caribbean green turtle. Indeed, the very formation of STC was inspired out of concern over the rapid decline of green turtles occurring as a result of over-harvesting for international consumption. At the time, green turtles were under great pressure due to worldwide demand, especially in Europe, for green turtle meat and fat, which is used in the making of green turtle soup.
In the 1970s, STC was actively involved in the development of CITES regulations that banned commercial trade in sea turtle products. The trade ban slowly eased worldwide pressure on green turtles, as generations of people in Europe were raised never having developed a taste for green turtle. These international sanctions, combined with ongoing conservation programs at important green turtle nesting beaches and developmental habitats, have helped stabilize green turtle populations in many parts of the Caribbean. Recent STC data show that green turtle nesting at Tortuguero, Costa Rica, has been increasing for over a decade. Similar trends are being seen in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. These positive steps toward recovering green turtle populations would be seriously jeopardized if international trade is reopened. Even though legal trade would be limited to just those turtles raised at the Cayman Turtle Farm, the pressure in poorer countries to start illegally harvesting would be too great — especially as international demand for turtle products is rekindled.
STC is actively opposing the UK/Cayman Islands proposal. Already, we have helped Costa Rica craft its formal opposition, and we will be sending one or more representatives to the CITES conference in Chile. The withdrawal of Cuba’s proposal regarding hawksbills was a great victory for sea turtle conservation, but the reopening of green turtle trade looms large as a major threat to this species. STC will do everything possible to convince CITES delegates that the Cayman Farm proposal would pose an unacceptable risk to green turtles.