Development activities, pollution termed major threat to sea turtles

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Development activities, pollution termed major threat to sea turtles

World Sea Turtle Day is observed every year on 16 June

Karachi, 15 June 2022: ‘Sea turtles along Pakistan’s coast face a host of anthropogenic threats which include habitat degradation, plastic pollution and entanglement in fishing gears. As a result of construction of huts along Sandspit and Hawksbay beaches in Karachi, Sindh and Taq in Ormara, Balochistan, major nesting grounds of sea turtles are adversely affected’.

This was stated by Muhammad Moazzam Khan, Technical Advisor, WWF-Pakistan in context of the World Sea Turtle Day observed on 16 June 2022. He believes that plastic waste, collapsing huts and rubble pose a serious threat to nesting females and juveniles.

Since 2000, World Sea Turtle Day is observed every year on 16 June, with an aim to raise awareness about the dwindling population of sea turtles and their diminishing habitat. In Pakistan, sea turtles are known to nest on a number of beaches including Sandspit, Hawksbay and Cape Monz along the Sindh coast and Taq (Ormara), Astola Island, Gwadar Headland and Daran along the Balochistan coast. Thousands of female turtles visit these beaches to nest and lay eggs.

According to WWF-Pakistan, entanglement in fishing nets is the most serious threat to marine turtles. To collect data on entanglement of turtles, WWF-Pakistan initiated a study in 2012 which revealed that 30,000 sea turtles were annually caught in tuna gillnet fisheries of Pakistan. This included roughly 25,500 Olive Ridley and 4,500 Green turtles in the offshore waters of Pakistan. It was estimated that about three per cent of entangled turtles were dying due to drowning or mishandling on-board fishing vessels.

Giant Manta Observed in offshore waters of Karachi 

Three Indus River Dolphins Fitted with Satellite Tags in Pakistan

To protect the sea turtles, WWF-Pakistan trained a total of 100 skippers and crew members to safely release them and developed a modification in the operation of the gillnets which reduced entanglement of sea turtles by 85 per cent. This is a major achievement towards the conservation of sea turtles along Pakistan’s coast.

Pollution is also another major threat to the sea turtle population in Pakistani waters. Popular beaches are littered with garbage, dominated by single-use and micro-plastics. WWF-Pakistan has also reported on the impact of diesel and petrol on the population of turtles, stating that exposure to these fuels results in deformation in hatchlings and thus, poses a serious threat to their survival.

According to Muhammad Moazzam Khan, a number of steps have been taken by concerned government agencies for the protection of sea turtles along Pakistan’s coast. Through the efforts of WWF-Pakistan, fisheries related legislations of both maritime provinces have been amended and sea turtles as well as freshwater turtles are declared protected. According to him, the declaration of Astola Island as a Marine Protected Area (MPA), actions taken by the wildlife departments of Sindh and Balochistan, efforts made by WWF-Pakistan, as well as awareness programmes initiated by some NGOs, have collectively resulted in an increase in the turtle population along Pakistan’s coast. However, he added that there is a need to declare all turtle beaches along the coast of Sindh and Balochistan as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). ‘This is essentially required for conservation of marine turtles in Pakistan’, he stated.

Rab Nawaz, Senior Director Conservation Biodiversity, WWF-Pakistan called for better protection and conservation of sea turtles in Pakistan. He said that these unique and iconic animals have been in existence for more than 100 million years but are under serious threat. He also said that human activities such as destruction of nesting sites and unplanned development, as well as climate change are pushing turtles closer to extinction which calls for immediate steps for their conservation. He urged relevant departments for taking stringent measures for protection of sea turtles including declaration of all major nesting grounds as MPAs.

Five species of marine turtles are reported from Pakistan; of these green turtles (Chelonia mydas) are the most dominant one. Another important sea turtle is Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) which used to nest along the coast of Pakistan. However, no nest of this turtle species has been reported since 2001. The other three species, including loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta), hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) and leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) are reported from Pakistan and only a few authentic records are made by WWF-Pakistan.

Although turtles are not commercially harvested for food in Pakistan, however, poaching of turtle eggs has been reported in Pakistan. Turtle hatchlings are also illegally removed from their nests and sold in aquarium shops. Although the government of Sindh takes action against poachers, this illegal trade still continues and needs to be curbed.