Safeguarding Sea Turtles in the Sulu Sulawesi
Photos taken in the Berau Marine Conservation Area, courtesy of CI-Indonesia

The Sulu Sulawesi Seascape is home to five of the world’s seven species of sea turtles – the green, hawksbill, loggerhead, olive ridley and leatherback turtles. The green and hawksbill turtles are the most common in the region, having large nesting and foraging populations in the region. The leatherback and loggerhead turtles swim through the waters of the Sulu Sulawesi as transient feeders. The olive ridley is known to be an occasional nester in isolated sites throughout the Philippines and Malaysia.

Once upon a time, many millions of sea turtles swam the Earth's oceans. Today, all seven species of sea turtle are considered either endangered or threatened.

Sea turtles in the Sulu Sulawesi Seascape are becoming increasingly threatened through extensive and uninterrupted egg harvests, direct poaching of adults for the meat and curio trades, mass poaching by distant nation fishing fleets from countries like China and the United States, habitat loss and degradation, and accidental mortality in commercial and artisanal fisheries.

As integral parts of the marine ecosystem, turtles are important indicators of the overall health of the marine environment. Sea turtles are gentle reptiles that spend most of their lives in the ocean. Females reach reproductive age after 35 to 40 years, and only then return to the beach of their birth to lay their eggs for the next generation. Although a female may lay hundreds of eggs in one season, only less than 2 percent of the hatchlings will survive to reach maturity.

The conservation and recovery of sea turtles requires cooperation and agreements among nations to ensure the survival of these highly migratory animals. Conservation action has long been in progress and generally successful in many parts of the Sulu Sulawesi Seascape. For instance, there are legal structures to protect habitats, particularly nesting beaches, such as in the Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary (TIWS) in the Philippines, one of the remaining major nesting grounds of sea turtles in the Southeast Asian region. It was declared as a Protected Area in 1999 under the National Integrated Protected Areas Act (NIPAS), prohibiting the hunting of turtles and their eggs.

Government agencies and NGOs work hand in hand to enhance conservation schemes. With the close collaboration between CI and the Philippines Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the TIWS management plan was finalized in May 2008. With CI’s support, the Pawikan Conservation Project of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) was able to rehabilitate compromised sea turtle hatcheries and continue monitoring nesting sites in Baguan and Taganak.

Conservation International believes that establishing a network of protected areas will contribute significantly to the protection of sea turtles, a valuable natural and cultural resource. This is indeed an ambitious endeavor that involves, among other things, the establishment of a coordinating body, evaluation of the effectiveness of the network, and dissemination of findings to a greater public.

According to CI, efforts must now be focused on designing a management framework, assigning clear roles and responsibilities to each of the stakeholders, and disseminating the achievements and initiatives of the network to generate support and participation amongst the wider public.

This management structure will also assess the effectiveness of the network, intensify capacitybuilding, and develop livelihood projects which build on the vision and goals of the overarching network.

Under the Sulu Sulawesi Seascape Project, CI has been working within the tri-national Sea Turtle Corridor, covering an area of some 7.8 million hectares spanning Philippine, Malaysian and Indonesian waters. The Corridor was initially established to conserve turtle populations from Berau, Indonesia to the Turtle Islands Heritage Protected (TIHPA) area spanning the Philippines and Malaysia. The extensive migration patterns of the region’s sea turtles provide strong arguments to expand the network of protected areas. For example, significant linkages indicate that the waters of the northern tip of Palawan in the Philippines are of equal importance to turtle conservation, hence merit the extension of the Tri-national Sea Turtle Corridor northwards from the Balabac straits all the way to the northern range of Palawan. In addition, the Tawi-Tawi-Jolo-Basilan-Zamboanga ridge and the eastern Sulu Sea have also been identified as critical turtle migration routes, and are interlinked components of the corridor. Thus, CI has recommended that more protected areas be established within those areas by 2020.

A network of this grand scale is certainly difficult to manage. Monitoring and evaluation of management effectiveness should therefore be a key component of the network, and should be based on practical, science-based criteria and protocols for monitoring and evaluation within each marine protected area (MPA). With advice from relevant government agencies, MPA partners, and science and management experts, the network should develop guidelines for monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of MPAs and individuals, and of the Tri-National Network as an entity. These guidelines should provide an integrated approach for monitoring the biophysical, socioeconomic, and governance elements of the MPA sites and include a set of
indicators and performance measures for assessing their effectiveness.

Download the CI report [Pilcher, N.J., A Network of Protected Areas to Safeguard Marine Turtles in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape].

Photos taken in the Berau Marine Conservation Area, courtesy of CI-Indonesia