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Island and Ocean Ecosystems

16 August 2023 - Marine turtles continue to be highly valued and used for cultural and economic purposes and for sustenance by communities in Papua New Guinea (PNG), according to the findings of a series of workshops held in Madang, Manus, Alotau, Central, Kavieng and Daru. 

The workshops, conducted between December 2022 and February 2023, were part of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Turtle Use Project, which aims to gain an understanding of the cultural, social and economic importance of all marine turtles to traditional communities in PNG and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. 

The project is implemented in partnership with the Conflict Islands Conservation Initiative (CICI), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) through the Pacific-European Union Marine Partnership (PEUMP) Programme funded by the European Union (EU) and the Government of Sweden. 

Data was collected via group activities during the workshops, and through individual surveys completed by participants to provide a baseline understanding of how many turtles are harvested in each participating community each year, as well as details on their use and purpose. 

The study found that six species of marine turtles are targeted for harvesting, with green turtles and hawksbills the most preferred species. Generally, loggerheads, leatherbacks, flatbacks and olive ridleys are far less hunted. 

Participants indicated that a large number of people in their communities harvest turtles either for food or as a means of income. Many also stated that turtles were culturally important and used for events such as weddings, family gatherings or funerals. 

Marine turtles face a range of threats, including direct take and trade of turtles and their eggs, predation, interactions with fishing gear, or caught as by-catch, impacts from marine pollution, as well as loss of nesting habitats from sea level rise and land-based activities such as logging and coastal development.

“The results will be further analysed later this year, but the preliminary results and discussions held during the workshops reflected the concern communities had regarding the status of turtles locally and globally,” said WWF’s PNG Turtle Use Project Coordinator, Mr Manuai Matawai. 

The workshops also informed participating communities about turtle biology, ecology, their conservation status, and threats, according to Mr Matawai.

“When it came to turtle value within the community, and concern for their conservation status, the results from all the sites remained fairly consistent in that communities were quite concerned about turtle population declines,” said WWF-Australia, Programme Manager for Marine Species, Elouise Haskin.

“Many individuals were unaware of the conservation status of turtles and others sought direction on what they can do to help turtle populations recover,” said Ms Haskin.

The general information collected suggested that the communities were interested in having changes made to ensure the recovery and survival of turtle populations but that they need turtles for their livelihoods if no other alternative were available.

The Manager for Marine Ecosystems in the Conservation and Environment Protection Authority, Mr Vagi Rei, advised that if regulations are to be introduced to control harvest of marine turtles, it should be done carefully to ensure that communities do not lose their income or food.

“Based on the importance of marine turtles to communities, any management decisions regarding the regulation of turtle harvest should be carefully considered to ensure community members do not suffer negative economic, cultural or health consequences as a result,” said Mr Rei.

“The public should continue to be consulted to ensure high uptake of future turtle regulations, if they are to be implemented,” he said.

Moving forward, formal analysis of the information gathered can help the communities of PNG establish sustainable development goals, such as increasing turtle populations with harvesting regulations, which was a management option suggested at least once in all workshops. Additionally, to ensure community well-being, nature-based solutions developed to support alternative income opportunities can be incorporated to ensure that turtle populations, and their cultural significance can persist within the region.