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Tristan da Cunha, a four-island archipelago in the south Atlantic Ocean with 245 permanent residents, is creating a massive marine protected area (MPA), set to become the fourth largest completely protected marine area in the world, and the largest in the Atlantic. 

The government of Tristan da Cunha made the announcement last week, saying that the protected area will span almost 700 000 sq km, making it almost three times larger than the UK, and will protect 90% of the waters around the island chain by making them a “no-take zone,” in which fishing, mining and other extractive activities are banned. 

Why Does This Matter?

The UK- which has a duty to protect wildlife in all its territories- will be responsible for the long-term monitoring and enforcement of the MPA. The new sanctuary is the result of a collaboration between the Tristan da Cunha and U.K. governments, and a number of other conservation groups, including The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which has worked in the region for 20 years, and the National Geographic’s Society’s Pristine Seas initiative.

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Conservationists say that this will help bolster a small lobster fishery outside the sanctuary, and it will also protect foraging grounds for the tens of millions of seabirds that roost on the island and the habitats for seals, sharks and whales. The island also serves as a critical nursery for blue sharks.

James Glass, Tristan da Cunha chief islander, says, “Our life on Tristan da Cunha has always been based around our relationship with the sea, and that continues today. The Tristan community is deeply committed to conservation: on land, we’ve already declared protected status for more than half our territory.

However, some NGOs have criticised the UK government’s support for marine protection in its overseas territories when its own record on protecting its domestic marine habitats is less-than-superb. An investigation by the Guardian revealed that all but two of Britain’s offshore MPAs were being bottom trawled. 

Jonathan Hall, head of UK overseas territories for the (RSPB), says, “We should also be looking at protecting UK waters. The contrast is stark. We have this small community that is showing leadership in protecting their waters, but there have been lots of examples this year where more effective management of our existing protected areas is needed.”

MPAs are seen by experts as a silver bullet for conservation. A study found that MPAs worldwide protect food supplies by producing larger catch yields. Fisheries that are left undisturbed can produce a “spillover” effect in which an abundance of fish from a protected area spills over into fishing hotspots. The study found that expanding the current network of protected areas by just 5% could boost global fish catch by at least 20%.

Featured image by: Flickr 

A global WWF report has found that the population sizes of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians have experienced a decline of an average of 68% between 1970 and 2016.

The Living Planet Report 2020 shows that population sizes in Latin America and the Caribbean have experienced the highest decline, at 94%, while globally, freshwater species have been disproportionately impacted, declining 84% of average. 

According to the report, this drastic decline shows a “fundamentally broken relationship between humans and the natural world.” 

WWF-US President and CEO, Carter Roberts, says, “This report reminds us that we destroy the planet at our peril- because it is our home. As humanity’s footprint expands into once-wild places, we’re devastating species populations. But we’re also exacerbating climate change and increasing the risk of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19. We cannot shield humanity from the impacts of environmental destruction. It’s time to restore our broken relationship with nature for the benefit of species and people alike.” 

The past 50 years have seen a rapid growth of human consumption, population, global trade and urbanisation, resulting in humanity using more of the Earth’s resources than it can replenish naturally. This wanton overuse has had a disastrous impact on biodiversity, the loss of which is being led by land-use change, particularly the conversion of habitats, like forests, grasslands and mangroves, into agricultural systems. The report also says that in the coming decades, the climate crisis will become a more prevalent driver. 

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While nature is being destroyed and changed at an astonishing rate, it is not too late. Modelling shows that the trend can be flattened and reversed with immediate and unprecedented actions, including transforming food production and consumption, aggressive actions to tackle the climate crisis and investments that conserve, protect and restore nature. 

We also need to transform our economic systems to reflect the natural capital that “underpins our economic prosperity.” 

The report urges world leaders to treat biodiversity conservation as a non-negotiable and strategic investment to preserve human health, wealth and security. 

WWF Global Chief Scientist, Rebecca Shaw, says, “While the trends are alarming, there is reason to remain optimistic. Young generations are becoming acutely aware of the link between planetary health and their own futures, and they are demanding action from our leaders. We must support them in their fight for a just and sustainable planet.” 

At least 100 000 people took part in a protest in Port Louis, the capital city of Mauritius, three weeks after an oil spill caused by a cargo ship ramming into coral reefs and days after at least 40 dolphins and whales were found washed up dead on beaches. The protesters are demanding an investigation into the oil spill and mass dolphin die-off. 

The government has said that it will carry out autopsies of all the dolphins and whales and has set up a commission to investigate the spill. Two investigations are currently being carried out: one by the police on the crew’s responsibilities and one by a senior shipping ministry official on what happened to the ship. 

Vets have only examined two of the carcasses, which showed signs of injury but no trace of oil in their bodies, according to preliminary autopsy reports. The autopsies were carried out by the government-run Albion Fisheries Research Centre. The remaining autopsies’ results are expected in the coming days, according to the fisheries ministry. 

However, Fabiola Monty, an environmental scientist, says, “We do not trust the government and the diluted information they’ve been feeding us regarding the management and responses to the oil spill.” 

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Eco-Sud, a local environmental group, adds that civil society representatives should be present during the autopsies and that independent specialists should be called upon for second opinions.

Mauritian officials said in a press conference that many of the dead species that have been washing up on beaches are Melon-headed whales, which are found primarily in deep, tropical waters. 

A Japanese-owned ship crashed into a coral reef on July 25 and began leaking at least 1 000 tons of oil on August 6, staining a protected wetlands area and a small island that was a bird and wildlife sanctuary. Thousands of volunteers worked for days to minimise the damage to the coastline, on which Mauritius depends for much of its revenue, creating makeshift oil barriers. Environmental workers also ferried dozens of tortoises and rare plants to shore, rescuing trapped seabirds as they went. 

According to 9News, another protest is being planned on September 12 in Mahebourg, one of the coastal villages in Mauritius that has been most affected by the oil spill. 

This article comes from the frontline activities of the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong, whose mission it is to advocate, facilitate and participate in effective conservation of Asian wildlife, with an emphasis on Chinese white dolphins and giant pandas. 

Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong (OPCFHK) has announced the details of its 2020-21 Conservation Funding Projects, pledging over HK$3.43 million to support 13 new studies. 

The selected projects involve more than 30 species with urgent conservation needs in eight Asian countries and regions, all of which focus on marine conservation and combating illegal trading of threatened species. Hong Kong-led projects include a first-of-its-kind computer program for automated facial recognition of the humphead wrasse, and genetic-based research of dried tokay geckos.

Michael Boos, Foundation Director of OPCFHK, says, “Illegal wildlife trade continues to be one of the most significant threats to biodiversity globally, and this is even happening in Hong Kong at our very own doorstep. In particular, some threatened wildlife species are considered to have edible and medicinal values in the city. Given the urgency of conservation efforts, it is critical that OPCFHK supports research studies which contribute to the effective combat of illegal trading and that also have measurable conservation outcomes.”

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The foundation says that conservation efforts can be misdirected if no solid evidence can be provided about a traded species’ place of origin. A new Hong Kong-led study will be conducted to combat the illegal trading of humphead wrasses. The research proposes developing a computer program for automated facial recognition of the humphead wrasse, which can later be tested in Hong Kong’s local seafood markets and eventually be adopted by local government departments and other countries for illegal trading regulation enforcement.

Another local project proposes genetic-based research to determine the geographic origin of dried tokay geckos sold in traditional Chinese medicine markets, which can improve the current genetic diversity of the species in Asia.

Dr Timothy Bonebrake, says, “Tokay geckos are frequently observed in Hong Kong’s markets, dried flat on sticks and used in soups to prevent lung problems. The vast numbers seen might lead one to believe that tokay geckos are an infinite resource. In reality, reports indicate that millions of tokay geckos are traded every year, to the point where the species was added to Annex II of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) in 2019 to prevent further endangerment. OPCFHK’s funding will help us conduct the research required to fill in this knowledge gap, using a combination of conservation forensics tools and field work to determine the origins of market geckos and how local tokay geckos in Hong Kong are affected by this global trade.”

Finally, a regional study of Okhotsk Sea bowhead whales conducted at The Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences will shed light on the endangered species’ seasonal distribution to define a potential ‘area of conflict’ with the wider industry. This is the first systematic survey to study their population, which will make use of satellite tracking to define migratory routes and winter grounds for this remarkable marine mammal.

About the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation

The OPCFHK works to advocate, facilitate and participate in effective conservation of Asian wildlife, with an emphasis on Chinese white dolphins and giant pandas. It achieves this goal through partnerships, fundraising, research and education. Since its inception 25 years ago, the foundation has allocated over HK$90.2 million to fund 514 research projects on cetaceans, giant pandas and many other species.

Find out more about OPCFHK’s conservation research funding at: https://www.opcf.org.hk/en/conservation-research/research-funding/2020-21-projects. 

Featured image supplied by: Ocean Park Conservation Foundation

International conservation charity ZSL (Zoological Society of London) along with partners Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE) and British Marine have received an award of over £1 million to boost the native oyster population in Britain, in the biggest project of its kind in the UK. 

The funding was raised by players of People’s Postcode Lottery and awarded as part of the Dream Fund, which gives charities the opportunity to bring a dream project to life. It will help the ‘Wild Oysters’ project to recover the native oyster population which will in turn see cleaner water, healthier fisheries and improved and plentiful marine biodiversity in Britain. 

Across Britain and the UK, wild native oyster populations have declined by over 95% due to a combination of over-harvesting, habitat loss, pollution and disease. Healthy oyster beds are hugely productive, providing important fish nursery ground habitats and supporting commercially important species such as seabass, bream and edible crabs. Oysters also purify the water in which they grow, removing and storing nitrogen and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Bringing conservation and industry together, the unique partnership between ZSL, BLUE and British Marine will allow oyster nurseries, suspended under marina pontoons, to release the next generation of baby oysters to the seabed. The young oysters, known as spat, will settle across the three oyster reefs created across British Estuaries including the River Conwy (Wales), Firth of Clyde (Scotland) and Tyne and Wear coastal water body (England). The project will work together with local partners to commence the restoration of the 20 000 sq km of oyster reefs that have been lost from around the coastline of Britain. 

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The oyster nurseries will provide a ‘unique window into the ocean’ which the project’s backers hope will allow them to inspire the next generation to protect and enhance the marine environment. The ‘Wild Oysters’ project will engage thousands of volunteers, from schools, Girlguides and Scouts to University students and local community groups to spread the word about the importance and significance of increasing oyster populations. 

ZSL Senior Conservation Programme Manager, Alison Debney said; “It’s wonderful to celebrate this win for oysters- they are the superheroes of our oceans. Despite their small size they’re capable of making huge changes in our marine environment.  

“Our dream is to grow a self-sustaining population of native oysters in the UK. This funding awarded by Postcode Dream Trust means we now have the potential to release nine billion native oyster larvae into the ocean, creating oyster nurseries in UK waters, work with local communities to care for our oceans superheroes and connect people and wildlife.   

“Thanks to players of People’s Postcode Lottery we hope to see healthy, resilient, coastal waters and make a remarkable difference to the future of wild oysters.” 

BLUE’s Senior UK Project Manager, Morven Robertson said; “Our oceans are our lifeline, they are capable of absorbing over a third of our CO2 emissions, but they are in crisis. Marine life populations are continuing to decline at a rapid rate. The incredible support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery marks a turning point for the recovery of UK seas and native oyster restoration. The Wild Oysters project will set a global precedent for the restoration of oysters and will help our ocean to breathe once again.” 

British Marine Environment Executive, James Scott- Anderson said; “This incredible funding award will allow the project partners a unique opportunity to bring together marine industry, science & expertise. Together we will implement a game changing solution to benefit and restore the UK seas ecosystem, water quality and biodiversity. Furthermore, the project connects with coastal communities and shares resources and knowledge to build a sustainable future for UK marinas, along with raising awareness of water pollution and the impacts of our actions on the environment for beach users, paddle boarders and anyone swimming in the sea.”

This article comes from the frontline activities of the Zoological Society of London, Blue Marine Foundation and British Marine, whose mission it is to create a world where wildlife thrives, address overfishing and protect the marine environment for the sustainability of the UK leisure, superyacht and small commercial marine industry respectively. 

About the Zoological Society of London

The ZSL is an international conservation charity working to create a world where wildlife thrives. From investigating the health threats facing animals to helping people and wildlife live alongside each other, ZSL is committed to bringing wildlife back from the brink of extinction. 

The ZSL engages in field conservation work around the world and educates millions of people through its two zoos, ZSL London Zoo and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo. 

For more information, visit www.zsl.org.   

About British Marine  

British Marine is a not for profit trade association for the UK leisure, superyacht and small commercial marine industry. Its members come from a broad range of businesses including boat builders, chandlers, brokers, marinas, passenger boats and engines.  

It represents the interests of members and the boating community alike. It aims to deliver water experiences for everyone. The marine environment is a fundamental aspect of this strategy.  

For more information, visit https://britishmarine.co.uk/

About the Blue Marine Foundation 

Known as BLUE, this UK registered charity was set up in 2010 by some of the team behind the award-winning documentary film ‘The End of the Line’. 

BLUE aims to restore the ocean by addressing overfishing.  BLUE is dedicated to creating marine reserves, restoring vital habitats and establishing models of sustainable fishing.  

BLUE’s mission is to see 30% of the world’s ocean under effective protection by 2030.   

For more information, visit https://www.bluemarinefoundation.com/

Featured image supplied by Zoological Society of London.

Entrepreneurs in New Zealand have developed a promising solution to unethical practices of keeping aquatic animals in captivity by introducing a robotic dolphin that looks almost identical to its living counterparts.

Edge Innovations, a New Zealand- based company, is collaborating with American creators to develop animatronic dolphins that come close to the real deal. Capable of responding to questions, swimming for hours on end, and coming into close contact with humans- which would usually be harmful to real dolphins- the innovation offers ethical security.

The robotic dolphins, controlled by remote, might sound unappealing to skeptics. However, as marine parks around the world are facing pressure to abolish the unethical practice of featuring real whales and dolphins, animatronics provide a promising alternative. The prototype weighs more than 270 kg and is indiscernible from the real thing, the team says. A test audience had been unable to guess that the dolphin was not real.

Roger Holzberg, a designer of the life-size robot bottlenose dolphins, says, “the marine park industry has had falling revenues for over a decade due to ethical concerns and the cost of live animals, yet the public hunger to learn about and experience these animals is still as strong as ever.” Holzberg is currently working with Walt Conti, who is behind some of cinema’s most famous sea creature feature films- including Free Willy and Deep Blue Sea- to build the animals.

“We believe that it’s time to reimagine this industry and that this approach can be more humane, and more profitable at the same time,” Holzberg added.

Costing approximately NZ$40 million per dolphin, the biggest challenge is to prove to investors that the robotic sea creatures will be cheaper in the long-term than their real counterparts.

Li Wang, a business developer for Edge Innovation, said that despite costing four times more than real dolphins, they would last longer. “We have to persuade them that it is a profitable business, even more profitable than live animals,” he says, adding that the robots do not require the same expensive maintenance as real dolphins. Bottlenose dolphins, on average, live less than 20 years in captivity, but 30-50 years in the wild. This highlights not only the potential profitability of the robotic dolphins, given that animatronics will last longer than 20 years, but it also demonstrates how marine parks significantly decrease the lifespan of dolphins.

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robotic dolphin
A prototype of Edge Innovation’s robotic dolphin (Photo by: Todd Lappin).

Before COVID-19 halted construction and development, at least 30 aquariums were being built in China, according to Li Wang, and at least one large Chinese corporation had planned to replace real dolphins with robots.

The company Red Star Macalline Group has sponsored the first phase of the robotic dolphin’s development and is considering introducing it to the Chinese market. The company stated they are planning to adopt robotic dolphins and other aquatic animals in their aquarium projects and announced a strong eagerness to distribute them across the country.

Melanie Langlotz, one of the entrepreneurs behind the project, had been commissioned to develop a digital component for aquariums but faced challenges when some companies did not want to be involved in a project that would eventually supply live animals to captivity.

A Promising Solution

Animal rights advocates welcomed the move. Elisa Allen, an animal rights activist at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says that she hoped robotic animals ‘will replace real ones in marine parks worldwide’.

In their natural habitats, dolphins are able to swim over 60 kilometers a day and live in tight-knit family groups. However, in captivity, they are confined to concrete pools filled with chemically treated water and forced to entertain strangers. “In 2020, cutting-edge technology allows us to experience nature without harming it,” Allen says.

Li Wang believes that the robotic dolphin will be received well by the public. “If we think about the younger generation, they spend far more time than us playing electronic games online. We actually need to ask ourselves what is real and what is fake,” he said.

As we are spoilt for choice when it comes to entertainment and ways to captivate audiences, harming innocent animals is no longer deemed as ‘necessary’ as it used to be when the resources available today did not exist. Such a solution should trigger others to think alike and to be as innovative in offering products and services that can replace outdated, unethical ones.

Featured image by: Todd Lappin

Ecuador has sounded the alarm after its navy discovered around 260 mostly Chinese-flagged fishing vessels in the ocean surrounding the Galápagos islands. The fleet, found just outside a protected zone, raises the prospect of damage to the protected region’s diverse ecosystem and marine life.

Chinese Fishing Fleets in the Galápagos

The fleet was spotted with satellite imaging on the borders of the Galápagos Protection Zone. The fleet was found between the boundaries of the zone and Ecuador’s territorial waters, an area that serves as a major migration route for sea creatures, including many endangered species.

Former environment minister Yolanda Kakabadse says, “This fleets’s size and aggressiveness against marine species is a big threat to the balance of species in the Galápagos.” Kakabadse and Roque Sevilla, ex-mayor of Quito, have been put in charge of designing a ‘protection strategy’ for the islands. Sevilla says that diplomatic requests would be made to request the fleet’s withdrawal. “Unchecked Chinese fishing just on the edge of the protected zone is ruining Ecuador’s efforts to protect marine life in the Galápagos,” he says. He added that the team would also seek to enforce international agreements that protect migratory species. 

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chinese vessels Galápagos
A Marine Traffic image showing the fishing fleets, represented by the orange arrows at the bottom left, as of July 27 2020 (Source: Hong Kong Free Press).

Chinese fishing vessels come every year to the seas surrounding the Galápagos islands, a UNESCO Heritage Site, but this year’s fleet is one of the largest seen in recent years. The Galápagos Marine Reserve has one of the world’s largest concentrations of shark species, including the endangered whale and hammerhead sharks. UNESCO describes the islands as a ‘living museum and a showcase for evolution’. 

Ecuador is trying to establish a corridor of marine reserves between Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia to seal off important areas of marine diversity. Kakabadse says that efforts will also be made to extend the exclusive economic zone to a 560km circumference around the islands. 

The Ecuadorean navy has been monitoring the fleet since it was first spotted in the week of July 20. The country’s defence minister Oswaldo Jarrín says, “We are on alert, conducting surveillance, patrolling to avoid an incident such as what happened in 2017.”

The incident in question refers to the capture by the navy within the Marine Reserve of a Chinese vessel, which was found to be carrying 300 tons of marine wildlife, mostly sharks. 

UPDATE AUGUST 11: Ecuador’s navy is conducting surveillance of the Chinese fishing fleet, which has grown to 340 vessels. China has promised a “zero tolerance” approach to illegal fishing and has proposed a moratorium on fishing in the area between September and November. The fishing fleets usually leave the area before that period.’

UPDATE SEPTEMBER 18: According to environmental protection NGO Oceana, the fleet are mainly fishing for squid, a vital part of the diet of endemic creatures including hammerhead sharks, as well as tuna. It has also been determined that the vessels disabled their public tracking devices, typically done to hide illegal activities.

This is a developing story. Follow Earth.Org for more updates. 

In late March, the Government of the Seychelles announced that it will extend the protection of its seas to 400 000 sq km, an area twice the size of Great Britain, fulfilling its promise to protect 30% of its surrounding marine territory and biodiversity. What does this mean for the future of the archipelago’s marine biodiversity?

The Seychelles, an 115-island archipelago off the eastern coast of Africa, is bursting with marine biodiversity and endangered endemic species that it endeavours to protect. Home to the vulnerable Dugong, a saltwater cousin of the manatee, the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle, and over 320 different species of coral, the Seychelles are teeming with marine life, making its protection all the more important.

Seychelles’s Marine Protected Area

The new Marine Protection Area (MPA) is part of a debt-for-nature initiative facilitated by the US-based NGO, The Nature Conservancy. Financial sponsors allowed the island nation to restructure its US$21.6 million international debt into funding for an MPA expansion plan.

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With over one third of the local economy tied to fishing and marine tourism, the 30% conservation commitment reconciles economic sustainability with a two-zone Marine Spatial Plan. Marine spatial planning is a collaborative process by which multiple organisations and industries coordinate to establish sustainable practices and resource management plans. Zone one is a 200 000 sq km ‘High Biodiversity Protection Area.’ It expands upon the already-protected Aldabra islands’ UNESCO World Heritage site which includes the world’s second largest raised coral atoll. This zone sees the strongest restrictions on human activity as a ‘no-take zone’, limiting access to only non-extractive tourist uses, and banning fishing, mining and drilling. Zone two is a 217 000 sq km square ‘Medium Biodiversity Protection and Sustainable Use Area.’ According to The Nature Conservancy, this zone is ‘designed to conserve natural ecosystems and support sustainable economic activities, including catch and release fishing, tourism charters, and renewable energy’.

The Seychelles are home to numerous protected marine ecosystems. From coral reefs to sea grasses and mangrove lagoons, these environments host thousands of species, many of which are either vulnerable, threatened or critically endangered. Sea grasses for instance, serve as a widely-used nursery habitat, food for sea turtles and dugongs, help to stabilise sediments, and reduce seawater acidity.  By allowing these ecosystems the ability to grow and flourish, they can be rehabilitated and repair human-induced damage, while having their biodiversity and habitat preserved.  

Environmental stewardship has been a fundamental part of the Seychelles’ mission since its inception. As article 38 in the Seychelles Constitution states: “The State recognises the right of every person to live in and enjoy a clean, healthy and ecologically balanced environment and with a view to ensuring the effective realisation of this right, the State undertakes to ensure sustainable socio-economic development of Seychelles by a judicious use and management of the resources of Seychelles.” 

It is the ultimate hope that the Seychelles can serve as a model for other island nations struggling to balance a “Blue-Economy” within a changing ocean. By showing its commitment to preserving its oceans while ensuring stable economic growth, the Seychelles can show other nations that rely on ocean tourism that this decoupling is possible. 

While the UN has set a goal for 10% of the world’s oceans to be protected by 2020, only about 2- 5.7% of the world’s oceans are currently protected areas.

Featured image by: Klaus Stiefel

Marine researchers in Florida say that COVID-19 restrictions that have kept humans and harmful waste off beaches are benefiting the numbers of endangered leatherback sea turtles in the state. 

The summer nesting season is barely two weeks old, but staff from the Loggerhead MarineLife Center in Juno Beach have already found and marked 76 nests of the world’s largest species of sea turtle on the nine and half mile stretch they monitor, a ‘significant’ increase from the same stage last year. This increase is raising hopes of a bountiful nesting season for leatherbacks.

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The center says, “Our world has changed, but these turtles have been doing this for millions of years and it’s just reassuring and gives us hope that the world is still going on.”

The Sea Turtle Conservancy says that the pandemic is advantageous to turtles in several ways. The chances that turtles will be inadvertently struck and killed is lower and the reduced human presence on beaches will mean less garbage and other plastic entering marine environments; ingestion and entanglement in plastic and marine debris are leading causes of injury to sea turtles. 

During the 2019 nesting season, almost 400 000 sea turtle nests were recorded along Florida’s coastline. MarineLife center research shows that only about one in every 1 000 hatchlings survive and fatalities on popular tourist beaches are higher.

The state’s stay-at-home restrictions in other areas are also benefiting other marine species. Preliminary data shows that matinee mortalities caused by watercraft strikes are down 9% on the previous year’s average. 

Source: Loggerhead MarineLife Center

Featured image by: Oregon State University

A conservation working group in South America is attempting to stimulate the recovery of the giant South American river turtle and save it from extinction.

Large-scale commercialisation of freshwater turtles and their eggs threaten wild populations. These turtles, of the genus Podocnemis, are especially at risk with all species in the taxonomic group facing the threat of extinction. The giant South American river turtle Podocnemis expansa in particular has been subject to an extensive history of exploitation in the Amazon since the 18th century, when European settlers would harvest fat from adult turtles for cooking oil and fuel for street lamps. During 1848-59 alone, 48 million P. expansa eggs were harvested annually from the Amazon and Madeira, the majority of which were exported to Europe.   

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The giant South American river turtle.

Why are giant South American river turtle under threat?

Today, the species faces threats from illegal poaching, whereby hatchlings and eggs are stolen from nesting sites and trafficked via networks in larger Amazonian cities to the rest of the world where they are sold as pets. Wild populations of P. expansa in Venezuela have plunged by as much as 98% from 1945-2010. 

Freshwater turtles play an important role in marine ecosystems. They provide high secondary productivity, energy flow within and between ecosystems and a food source for human riverine communities. Secondary production refers to the measuring of biomass generation by an organism; biomass is an important measure in ecology, because it reflects the amount of available and stored energy in the animals or plants occupying an ecosystem. According to Lovich, Ennen, Agha & Gibbons (2018), turtles also regulate the energy flow of a given environment. They themselves and their eggs are a food source for predators, and beach vegetation derives benefits from the eggs that remain on beaches and break down, which regulates erosion. 

Since the 1960s, government agencies and NGOs have attempted to reduce the trade of the species to support its recovery. However, hunting pressure in the region remains high. Although the species is currently listed as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List, conservation groups are actively pushing for its re-classification to “Critically Endangered”. 

In 2014, conservation groups from six countries across the Orinoco and Amazon basins—Brazil, Columbia, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela and Ecuador—gathered to share information to estimate the abundance patterns of P. expansa populations in the wild. Their findings were recently published in Oryx, a peer-reviewed journal of conservation. 

Collectively, the researchers estimated that over 147,000 females inhabit the protected areas across the six Amazon countries. Brazil hosts the largest (>75%) number of nesting females, followed by Bolivia (20%). The top nesting sites—five in Brazil and one in Bolivia—account for over 100,000 (68%) of nesting females. Long-term protection of these sites alone would secure more than two-thirds of the protected population in the wild. 

Moving forward, the working group will prioritise the protection of nesting beaches and the reduction of illegal poaching. It also discourages the practice of nest relocations and head starting, a strategy whereby young turtles are protected in captivity temporarily before their release into the wild at a larger size, as both could lead to adverse health effects for turtles, including morphological abnormalities.

Moreover, the group will actively collect demographic information such as population size and structure, and age-specific survivorship, which is essential for informing the conservation status of P. expansa as well as broad-scale conservation action. 

The long-term survival of P. expansa will depend on a collective effort across the region, including engagements with local Amazonian communities. 

“We are seeing positive results as work progresses and as communities are expressing greater interest in working with turtles. We have seen a decrease in the consumption of eggs, an important achievement that we must replicate throughout the continent,” said Camila Ferrara, co-author of the journal paper in a statement

Featured image courtesy of Wiki

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