30 Aug 2016

Hawksbill turtles need regional protection

7:37 am on 30 August 2016

National conservation measures are not enough to protect critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle populations in the Pacific.

Ten turtles were tagged in June as part of a satellite tagging exercise of turtles from the South Pacific's largest rookery located in the Solomons' Arnavnon Islands.

Conservation officers and conservancy scientists release a tagged hawksbill turtle.

Conservation officers and conservancy scientists release a tagged hawksbill turtle. Photo: Supplied/Tim Calver

Of these, two have been killed by poachers, while the eight that survived made journeys of more than 2,000 kilometres to Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Tagged hawksbill turtles are tracked and their journeys mapped.

Tagged hawksbill turtles are tracked and their journeys mapped. Photo: Supplied/ The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy's Melanesia Program Director Richard Hamilton said the huge distances covered by the turtles means existing conservation arrangements are not sufficient.

ACMCA conservation officer Dickson Motui builds a pathway for the hawksbill turtle hatchlings.

ACMCA conservation officer Dickson Motui builds a pathway for the hawksbill turtle hatchlings. Photo: Supplied/Justine E

"It really just highlights the difficulties in managing these highly migratory shared resources," he said.

"So a lot of these turtles are migrating out of the Solomons and then passing through Papua New Guinea and then dropping down into Australia. So it really does highlight the need to have some sort of regional agreements and regional management measures which aren't just site based for these species."

Baby hawksbill sea turtle swimming away after hatching in the Arnavon Islands.

Baby hawksbill sea turtle swimming away after hatching in the Arnavon Islands. Photo: Supplied/Tim Calver

Results of the tagging showed the size of the existing Arnavon Community Marine Conservation Area is sufficient to protect nesting turtles with 95 percent of their time during the nesting season spent in this area.

Conservation officers hold the hawksbill turtle while Conservancy scientists attach a satellite tag.

Conservation officers hold the hawksbill turtle while Conservancy scientists attach a satellite tag. Photo: Supplied/Tim Calver

However Richard Hamilton said poaching remains an issue despite the presence of full-time rangers.

"It has become a bit of a problem more so in recent years and we believe that is probably being driven by a growing demand for illegally purchased hawksbill products. Probably mainly out of mainland China. So there are buyers in Honiara now which are paying reasonable prices for this hawksbill shell and we think it is probably being re-exported out of the country. And there is also a smaller trade I think in the production of local items like bracelets and hairclips etc which are sold to tourists in that trade."

Baby hawksbill sea turtles crawling to the sea after hatching in the Arnavon Islands.

Baby hawksbill sea turtles crawling to the sea after hatching in the Arnavon Islands. Photo: Supplied/Kathleen Goldstein

Hawksbill turtles take more than 30 years to reach sexual maturity and always return to their original nesting grounds to lay their eggs.

The species has been pushed to the edge of extinction by hundreds of years of commercial exploitation for the turtle's shell which is highly valued for jewellery and ornamentation.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs