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September 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 26, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Pity the Sea Turtle

from the September, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

While endangered green and loggerhead sea turtles are cherished and protected in some places, they're considered as poachable food and trophies in many countries that divers visit. A roundup of recent incidents showed the highs and lows sea turtles face worldwide.

While a New Zealand woman has made a life's work of saving Tonga's endangered green turtles, Methodist ministers make meals of them. Jo Kupu has rescued 600 turtles in the last decade, buying them at the local market and releasing them. But when fishermen, noted that the arrival of mating turtles coincided with a Wesleyan Church conference last spring, they netted 14 live turtles, shipped them to the conference site to lie in the sun on their backs, awaiting their fate. By the time Kupu came to rescue them, 10 had had been served up in the Methodists' dining room. She rescued the remaining four, but one died soon after being returned to the sea. With breeding programs in Tahiti, Samoa and Vanuatu, green turtles are starting to return to Tonga, but the law is vague over whether they are protected.

Grand Cayman is known for its famous turtle farm, but apparently that doesn't mean turtles have it easier. In May, poachers killed an adult male by deliberately shooting a speargun through its head, but were likely disturbed during the capture and fled the scene, leaving the turtle behind. The police found the 350-pound male turtle, also badly cut by the poachers' boat engine, and rushed it to medical aid but the turtle died en route to the dock.

In mid-May, Philippine authorities seized a major haul of 158 preserved sea turtles, ranging from four to 100 years old, and 124,000 pieces of sea fan and sea whip corals - - all protected species - - at Manila's port before they could be smuggled abroad. The turtles, corals and 209 boxes of shells - - falsely declared as "rubber" - - were hidden inside two huge containers shipped from the southern Philippine city of Cotabato. The corals and shells could be sold overseas for $47,000, but the environmental damage was far more, as officials believe the poachers destroyed about 7,000 hectares of coral reef, twice the size of Manila, in the Moro Gulf and the Sulu Sea to haul in their booty. The turtle trade has been banned globally since the 1980s.

But there is some good news. On May 13, marine researchers in Maui removed an eight-pound tumor from the face of a green sea turtle named "Hearty." Divers spotted Hearty near Makena Landing, and he was transported to Oahu for the operation. He made a speedy recovery, and was returned to the ocean a week later. Many times, tumor-plagued turtles may be too far past help, but Hearty's tumor was operable, and he had a fully functional eye underneath. Hearty is only the second turtle since the mid-'80s researchers could help by removing a massive tumor. Now Hearty has a microchip on each hind flipper for tracking purposes.

And last month, a 125-pound endangered loggerhead in the Florida Keys made a miraculous recovery after being shot in the head with a high-powered speargun. Father and son Charlie and Nicholas Borg from Michigan were on a fishing trip near Little Palm Island on August 3 when they spotted the turtle floating, flippers in the air, and with a four-foot, steel-shafted spear protruding from its face. They hauled the distressed turtle on board and called the Coast Guard. It wasn't easy for Doug Mader, a reptile veterinarian, to remove the shaft from Sara, the name rescuers chose for the 15-year-old turtle. "If the spear went a quarter-inch in any other direction, she would be dead," Mader said. But Sara healed quickly, and is expected to be released within a month, without any permanent injuries. The reward, gathered by outraged Keys residents, for information leading to arrest and conviction for mutilating an endangered species is now at $10,750.

If you want to help save sea turtles, support the Sea Turtle Restoration Network, where Todd Steiner and his crew do a good job for little money in standing up to protect these animals worldwide. Visit their website at for more information or to make a donation.

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