Local environmental NGOs Ecocare and Bluepeace have condemned images circulating on social media showing a turtle being cut in half for its eggs and meat.
Both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and police are now investigating the pictures.
Ecocare has demanded “immediate action from relevant authorities to stop such atrocities against protected marine species in the country”, in a statement which also said the NGO was “outraged by the lack of adequate enforcement measures in place”.
The pictures which were shared on Facebook show a group of people cutting open an adult sea turtle and extracting its eggs and meat. Local media outlet Sun Online has reported that the pictures were taken on the island of Maalhos in Alif Alif Atoll.
Maalhos Island Council has expressed concern over the incident but has said it was not aware that the pictures originated from the island.
Sun reported council Vice President Ahmed Sameeh as saying that it was common for islanders to hunt turtles and that the council has repeatedly requested citizens to stop.
Bluepeace Executive Director Rilwan Ali told Minivan News that the main obstruction to preventing such instances was poor institutional coordination between the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture and the EPA.
“The biggest problem is that turtle conservation comes under the fisheries law which is implemented by the fisheries ministry. The ministry has to share its resources with the EPA so that these kinds of events can be prevented,” said Rilwan.
Speaking on behalf the EPA, Director General Ibrahim Naeem said that these kinds of events could have a negative impact on the tourism of the country as well as long term effects on the economy, while highlighting the need for stricter punishments for such environmental crimes.
According to the fisheries regulations, the “catching, fishing, collecting or killing” of sea turtles is illegal throughout the country. The collection of sea turtles and eggs is also illegal, but only in 14 of the country’s 1,192 islands.
The current moratorium is set to last until 2016 thoug reports of turtle slaughter persist. Earlier this year, one source estimated that up to 180 turtles were killed from a single island in Shaviyani Atoll in 2013.
“There is a well-known nesting island and every night a group is going and hunting the turtles. It is so obvious, every day since January one or two are killed,” said the informed source. “They wait for them to nest on the island, or go snorkeling to hunt them.”
While speaking to Minivan News in April this year, Sam Hope – Marine Discovery Centre Manager at Four Seasons Kuda Huraa – said that the biggest threat to turtles is egg collection and trade.
Meanwhile, turtle conservation expert Dr Agnese Mancini has reported a decline in the population of the majority of turtle species found in the Maldives.
Collecting turtle eggs is still legal and will remain so until at least 2015, according to government regulations, despite recent scientific reports stating that the population of the majority of turtle species is declining.
“We have a moratorium that will end at 2015, then we will look at other measures that we have to take,” explained Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Dr Mohamed Shainee.
With turtle population numbers declining and some species at serious risk of complete extinction, organisations are working hard to protect turtles from further degradation at the hand of both humans and the environment.
The biggest threat to turtles, according to Sam Hope – Marine Discovery Centre Manager at Four Seasons Kuda Huraa – is egg collection and trade.
“There is a ban on catching and killing turtles in the Maldives, and that has been in places since June 1995, however, there isn’t a ban on egg collection,” stated Hope.
According to the fisheries regulations, the” catching, fishing, collecting or killing” of sea turtles is illegal across the entire country. The collection of sea turtles and eggs is also illegal say the regulations, but this is only applicable to 14 islands out of a possible 1,192.
The continuing secret slaughter of turtles was demonstrated last year after photographic evidence the practice emerged, showing dozens of dead sea turtles loaded onto a dhoni.
More recently, an article by Dr Agnese Mancini – an expert on turtle conservation – reported a decline in the population of the majority of turtle species found in the Maldives.
Published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the report established that while quantitative data on turtle numbers is scattered, the data collected recently from the entire Indian Ocean indicates negative trends in population numbers for all of the species, barring the Olive Ridley species.
Despite these findings, the laws governing the collection of turtle eggs remains the same and will do until at least 2015, stated Dr Shainee.
“Before that we will start planning for the next steps, and increasing our understanding – we will try and get stakeholders on board,” he said.
When asked if he thought the ban on egg collection should cover all islands of the Maldives, Shainee said that all islands would be protected, but that efforts needed to be focused.
“The rest of the islands we will do, but if they are not nesting islands there’s no point in unnecessarily restricting. For those areas that we know, we want to protect.”
In response to some of these threats, Four Seasons has teamed up with local environmental agency Seamarc to implement a number of valuable conservation programmes across the Maldives – based from their two on-site Marine Discovery Centres.
Among the pair’s successful projects is the ‘Head Start’ programme run from the Kuda Huraa resort – a fledgling project which has shown great potential to help increase the local turtle population.
The likelihood of turtle hatchlings surviving is estimated to be around 150:1, and so marine biologists have been hand-rearing a select few young turtles at the Marine Conservation Centre in order to give them a greater chance of survival.
“Where we do get a hatchling nest, we allow all of them to run down to the sea – because that’s very important for their development – but when they reach the sea we collect just two for our Head Start programme,” explained Hope.
“The Head Start programme is aiming to provide a safe environment so those turtles can go through the early stages of development and avoid those early stages of danger.”
“Because turtles have got a pretty rough deal- anything from ants to rats, cats, seabirds, fish and sharks- its really tough when you’re only 4-5 inches long with no defence techniques at all -apart from looking incredibly cute.”
“So we bring them back here, place them into our pools where we do a weekly check up where we weigh and measure them. The weight is very important to their health, and we’re working hard to understand the sea turtle dietary requirements,” Hope continued.
“When the Head Start gets to 18cm – which takes about 13 months – we put a satellite tracker on their back and we send them out into the big blue. We download from the satellite every two days, and download the data into google maps.”
The tags are semi-permanent, meaning the researchers can see how far the turtles have travelled for up to 10 months.
To date, the Head Start programme has reared and released 37 turtles, with 16 tagged for satellite tracking.
There are a number of resorts which are contributing valuable work to environmental conservation, but in order to push this movement to the next level, Hope notes that the links between resorts and local communities need to be stronger.
“There needs to be more trust between resorts and local communities” he states. “What would really benefit the movement is a bottom up management, led by a greater amount of community work and community led projects.”
Regarding the laws against turtle egg collection, Hope said that it was unlikely all islands are being used for turtle nesting, but admitted there was a dearth of local knowledge which Seamarc was attempting to address with local surveys and community assessments.
“Turtles sometimes switch nesting beaches if the beach condition becomes degraded which means that they may start using unprotected islands in the future if they are not already. Before we can decide on scientific policy we require scientific fact on which we can base decisions.”
“It is our hope that our work will shed more light on the extent of turtle nesting activities in order to further protect these endangered species.”
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature Maldives is holding a seminar to inform local residents about sustainable practises in “manta tourism” in the Maldives.
The free public seminar will be held on this Saturday (March 15), from 10:00 – 12:00 at the Faculty of Education Auditorium, Ameenee Building, Malé.
Based on surveys of experienced divers and tourists, the manta-related touristic activity is estimated to be worth about US$8.1 million per year in direct revenue.
There is a concern, however, that the large numbers of tourists flocking to popular manta sites could be having a negative impact on manta numbers.
The seminar will discuss different options for developing a responsible ‘manta Tourism’ and will describe some best practices to follow while viewing mantas because preventing disturbances will help keep a healthy population of rays in the Maldives.
“Call it CSI Turtle. In the Maldives, at the heart of the Indian Ocean, scores of turtles are being found with gashed or ripped-off flippers and deep scars in their shells. The cause is clear: the turtles are becoming ensnared in “ghost” fishing nets that have either have been lost or dumped,” reports Damian Carrington for the UK-based Guardian newspaper.
“The turtles that don’t drown are then attacked mercilessly by accomplices. The stumps of the turtles’ flippers show clear signs of being ripped off by sharks, while the shell damage points to a sharp implement: the beaks of birds and the claws of crabs. The nets themselves cut through the turtle’s flesh like cheesewire, leaving deep wounds.
But what the investigation has not yet established are the culprits behind the crime and the motive.
‘It’s OK to keep finding these turtles and keep stitching them up, but it’s just going to keep happening. So we need to try to find out why the nets are being lost,’ says Dr Jill Hudgins, a scientist from the Seamarc consultancy and employed by the Four Seasons resort on Landaa Giraavaru island.
The turtles are the Olive Ridley variety, which live in the open ocean, not the atolls and lagoons of the Maldives, and Maldivian fishermen don’t use nets, pointing the investigation abroad.
Hudgins’ team has now compiled a database of more than 40 net types, detailing the mesh size and the twine diameter, as well as the types of floats attached and other data like the labels on debris trapped in the net such as plastic bottles.
The evidence all points to trawler nets floating in from India and Sri Lanka, and a recent breakthrough was finding a net manufacturer’s label: Garware, an Indian company. Hudgins has now sent images of the nets and severely injured turtles to the company and awaits their reply.
‘We want to scare them a bit,’ she says, and then get their help in finding solutions.”
South Ari Atoll is hosting a whale shark festival aiming to bring together local resorts and communities with a view to expanding cooperation on conservation – as well as providing tourists with insight into one of the country’s most elusive creatures.
Based on the island of Dhigurah, the festival is focused not only on trying to better understand the movement and behaviours of whale sharks in their natural habitat, but also to give visitors a chance to better understand South Ari Atoll’s ecology and culture.
The event also represents a collaboration between local NGOs such as the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP), the South Ari Marine Protected Area, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Beyond the country’s traditional appeal as a destination for sun, sand and sea, sightings of creatures like the whale shark have increasingly proven a major draw for visitors in recent years.
In attempts to balance the potential environmental impacts of increased numbers of visitors wishing to experience the country’s delicate ecosystems, several island resort properties have announced collaborations with conservation groups and marine reserves across the country.
The Conrad Maldives Rangali Island resort told Dhonisaurus that beyond playing a role in today’s festival, the property over the last six years has been involved with efforts to promote better conservation and understanding of whale sharks in the country.
Resort spokesperson Katherine Anthony said the resort had been a main sponsor of the MWSRP NGO since 2007, as part of a strategy she said reflected the seriousness with which the property treated the conservation and study of the local environment.
Conrad has said that the nature of the resort’s sponsorship of the MWSRP is partly financial, but also provided accommodation, fuel and food to the group’s researchers for nine months of the year.
Besides research, the MWSRP also allows guests at the property to participate in three weekly excursions to go out and see the creatures.
“They can talk about whale sharks in depth and give a much more detailed and focused excursion than you’d find elsewhere due to the MWSRP’s in depth knowledge of whale sharks,” she said.
“What we have found is that already one guest has joined the MWSRP as a research volunteer, so it’s definitely a program that’s of interest to our guests.”
Anthony added that resort guests accepting an invite to the festival would be given a unique and rarely seen insight into the local environment.
“It’s also an excellent opportunity to see life on an inhabited Maldivian island, eat Maldivian food, meet Maldivians and talk to them about their lives,” she said.
On a national level, the Maldives government is moving ahead with plans to transform the Maldives into what it claims will be the world’s largest biosphere reserve by designating zones across the country that would earmark land use for specific purposes such as tourism development or conservation.
In approving the plan to transform the country into a “world renowned” marine reserve, members of the cabinet claim there has been a growing number of visitors to areas such as Baa Atoll after it became a protected area.
While some tourism industry figures have welcomed existing efforts to transformation areas such as Baa Atoll into bio-reserves, concerns have been raised about the efforts taken to manage such zones in balancing tourism interests with preserving local habitats.
“It’s not about fishing for today, it’s about fishing for tomorrow.”
Committee Member for Maldives Game Fishing Association (MGFA) Tiffany Bond said its upcoming Maldives Game Fishing Challenge, in association with Dhiraagu, will involve locals and tourists in a tradition-based water sport while supporting conservation efforts.
“The competition is a big introductory way for local and international anglers to fish alongside each other, sharing expertise and learning more about the big fish that are out there. We look forward to providing an equal playing field for all involved,” said Bond.
The tournament features tag-and-release fishing, wherein captured fish are ‘tagged’ by inserting a narrow identification tube into the shoulder area before being released into the sea. The method supports fish conservation efforts worldwide.
The tournament will take place from November 9-12 in and around North and South Male’ and Vaavu atolls. Targeted species include marlin, sailfish, yellowfin, big eye, dog tooth tuna and wahoo. Line classes used will be 20, 30, 50 and 80 pounds, with minimum weights on all classes.
The International Game Fishing Association (IGFA) has endorsed the competition as an IFA Offshore World Championship Qualifying Event.
Fishing is the Maldives’ only export, and an integral part of its culture and heritage.
Noting that the Maldives is 99 percent water, Bond said it was “extraordinary” that big game fishing had not previously been introduced on a large scale. She suggested that the oversight was due to the Maldives’ tradition of “fishing for now, and usually catching smaller fish locally with dhonis and small lines. We would like to add to that tradition by introducing the conservation-friendly sport of big game fishing.”
Several resorts in the country offer game fishing as an excursion, however the practice of tag-and-release remains largely unknown.
Bond said that while these resorts have the sporting equipment their crews are often unfamiliar with methods such as how to handle a fish “to give it an optimum chance at life after release,” said Bond.
Growth of the sport is expected to add to the Maldives’ large tourism economy. “The Maldives is a unique place for game fishing because it can appeal to the angler and the angler’s wife. While the angler goes fishing, there are lots of things for the wife and family to enjoy as well. In many ways, it’s another feather in the tourism hat,” said Bond.
MGFA Vice President Ahmed Nazeer said game fishing would attract a new tourism demographic. “The competitors and fishermen we see are not likely to be the average romantic vacationers or honeymooners, but serious competitive sportsmen,” he said at a press conference today.
Nazeer said the specific nature of the sport would attract long-anglers from the United States, a country which is not highly represented in tourist arrivals.
He further indicated that the tournament was in line with global trends. “The approach to game fishing is increasingly popular abroad. If we see significant improvement with sustainable sports fishing, we will take steps to develop a long-term commitment to the sport in the Maldives.”
MGFA aims to develop conservation efforts and contribute to local charities. Bond said the association intends to collaborate with the Male’ Marine Research Center, and hopes to unite other conservation operations into a robust cooperative effort.
Under one plan, some of the fish caught will be kept for information gathering purposes and then sold on the fish market. The profits will go to a local charity, which has not yet been selected.
Bond noted in an interview that renowned Australian marine scientist Dr. Julian Pepperell had previously approached the Maldivian government with an interest in developing conservation programs. His inquiries allegedly solicited no response. Bond noted that Pepperell is keen to work with MGFA in the near future.
MGFA anticipates hosting 80 competitors for the event, which is open to local and international anglers. Participants and crew will be trained in the technique and advantage of tag-and-release fishing, and prizes will be awarded to the categories angler, team and boat. Registration fees are US$650, and may be submitted at the MGFA website.
Tourists to the Maldives should pay an environmental levy to fund conservation programmes in the country, according to a report produced by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), in collaboration with the College of Fisheries in Mangalore, India, Florida International University in Miami and the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics (SANDEE).
The report, titled ‘User-based Financing of Environmental Conservation of the Maldivian Atolls’, places a monetary value on the use of natural resources for tourism, and proposes the use-tax as a means of compensating for the current “lack of political will and budgetary resources [which] appear to hinder the effective implementation of the above marine protection law.”
Tourism should fund conservation, the report suggests, as the study “found a large disparity between the amount of economic value generated from this nature-based tourism and the amount going into atoll environmental conservation.”
“Even a small tax levied on tourist expenditure on the islands or a direct conservation check-off as a user fee collected from the tourists would help defray the costs of the atoll conservation,” the report suggests.
Specific threats to the marine ecosystem – and the tourism industry – include threats to coral from development activities such as near-shore reclamation, harbor construction, dredging and other island expansion activities.
“Additionally the nutrient enrichment from sewage discharges from the resorts and nearby inhabited islands encouraging algae growth on the reef,” the report notes.
“Over-exploitation of reef fisheries also indirectly impacts the corals. Overfishing removes the herbivorous fishes and these fishes such as parrot and surgeon fishes are integral part of reef as they prevent the over growth of macro-algae on the reef as they deprive corals of essential sunlight.”
Despite the implementation of 31 marine protected areas, high demand for reef fish by resorts and seafood exporters means local fishermen continued to fish in these areas, with little funding allocated to education or enforcement.
“From inception the marine protected area program received only meager financial support from the government, and inadequate staff,” the report notes.
“In the year 2007, the entire environmental conservation program in the country received less than one percent of the Gross Domestic Product while the tourism and transportation sector together contributed about 46 percent.
“The inadequate funding of such programs seriously limits the ability of the management agencies of enforcing protected area boundaries, use restrictions, and penalties and conducting educational programs.”
The report suggests that part of the reason protected areas receive insufficient funding “is the government’s failure to recognise both market and non-market values derived from natural resources.”
“With nature-based tourism there exists a significant amount of economic surplus, which the tourists derive and which does not enter the market process. As a result, the government fails to recover at least a portion of that surplus toward the costs of protecting the resource from its users.”
Currently, visitors spend an average of US$1,666 per person per trip within the country, a total annual spend of US$1,126 million, the report noted, broken down into hotels (35%), followed by food and beverages (23%), recreational activities (19%), miscellaneous (18%) and retail shopping (5%).
If the government were to introduce a user fee of US$35, spread across these or levied at once, then based on current visitor numbers the country would generate US$27.36 million – “more than 85 percent of current environmental expenditure.”
Sim Mohamed Ibrahim from the Maldives Association Tourism Industry (MATI) counters that passing additional taxes to tourists is “not a good idea at all”, as “the Maldives is already seen as an expensive luxury destination, and unaffordable for tourists in the mid-market segment.”
“Resorts already need to apply best practice to maintain and manage natural resources to ensure they remain in business,” he said, favouring education and greater involvement between the industry and the local communities.
Resorts “could do more” to pass on best practice to the community, Sim acknowledged.
“In particular we have to catch the younger generation before they begin dropping waste in the ocean, for instance,” he said.
The report anticipates the industry’s economic counterargument, in that the main challenge faced in implementing such a conservation fee would be “political resistance from local businesses that serve the tourism industry. It is feared that excessive taxes and fees may turn tourists away to other places.”
“Ironically, Maldives’ tourism continues to expand significantly [and] users who greatly benefit from the rich natural resource are foreigners, while the responsibility for sustainable and fair use of such resources largely falls on the local population and the government,” the report reads.
“One way to resolve this disparity issue is to identify funding sources from within those who directly benefit from the tourism experience and the tourism dollars, and to design policies to ensure appropriate money transfer from beneficiaries to those responsible for conservation and regulation,” it notes.