IN spite of extensive efforts to conserve and monitor threatened marine turtles in the country, incidental by-catch by artisanal fisheries is a major threat as it is a delicacy among many coastal communities.
The Sea Sense Director, Ms Lindsey West exclusively told the 'Daily News on Saturday' in an email interview that despite being afforded protection under national fisheries legislation, laws are not enforced effectively and trade in turtle products namely meat, shells, oil, eggs is commonplace.
"There are also low levels of awareness in coastal communities of the important role of sea turtles in the wider marine ecosystem," she explained.
Ms West explained that coastal development has caused the loss of several nesting beaches particularly in Zanzibar and foraging and breeding habitats are being degraded by illegal and destructive fishing practices such as beach seines and dynamite fishing.
Sea Sense is working closely with the Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute (TAFIRI), WWF, Department of Fisheries and in particular Marine Parks and Reserves Unit to conserve endangered marine species for the benefit of mankind.
The TAFIRI Director General, Dr Benjamin Ngatunga said that boost marine ecotourism, conservation of the rare and touristic marine species is paramount.
According to the Indian Ocean - South East Asian Marine Turtle Memorandum of Understanding website, although the conservation and management of marine turtles have been underway since the 1990s, information concerning population dynamics is incomplete, while knowledge of nesting populations and feeding habitats is patchy and of developmental habitats almost non-existent.
It cited Tanzania Turtle and Dugong Conservation Programme (TTDCP), since 2001, some 536 nests have been recorded on Mafia Island, along with the hatching of over 30,000 green and hawksbill turtles. The rate of human poaching has fallen from 80 per cent to less than 1 per cent.
A dedicated sea turtle conservation programme on the Tanzania mainland is run by Sea Sense NGO. The Marine Parks and Reserves Unit also has a sea turtle monitoring programme within the Mnazi Bay, Ruvuma Estuary Marine Park (MBREMP).
During this year's World Turtle Day commemorated on May 23, one of the world's leading luxury experiential travel companies, designing personalised luxury safaris posted a press release on their website celebrating the hatching of over 50,000 eggs in Mnemba Island Marine Conservation Area in Zanzibar.
"With an average of 34 turtles nesting on the island each year and approximately 100 hatchlings per nest, more than 50,000 turtles have been born on Mnemba in the past fifteen years. As few predators are encountered on the island, more than 90 per cent of these hatchlings reach the sea safely," the release read in part.
Ms West explained that each nest laid by a green turtle in Mnemba is monitored during the incubation period by staff at the lodge. If a nest is laid below the high tide mark it is moved to a safer area using internationally approved relocation protocols to prevent the nest being inundated by the incoming tide.
Shedding more light on the monitoring process, she said that each nesting turtle is tagged with two individually numbered titanium tags in each of the fore flippers. The tags have the prefix TZ to indicate that they were deployed in Tanzania. Females are tagged after they have finished nesting and are returning to the sea.
"The tags enable identification of individual females so it is possible to count how many times each turtle nests per season known as 'clutch frequency', levels of nest site fidelity, duration of inter nesting intervals, days between successive nests in one season and remigration intervals (time between successive nesting seasons)," she said.
Ms West said that from the data it is possible to calculate the size of the nesting population and design effective conservation measures due to a detailed knowledge of the population. Flipper tagging occurs at three sites: Mafia Island and Temeke District (Sea Sense) and Mnemba Island.
Tags are supplied by Sea Sense NGO who also provided the training to Mnemba staff in sea turtle tagging techniques. According to the Green Facts website, in 2008 an estimated 245 million metric tonnes of plastics are globally produced annually and the amount of plastic litter that is finding its way into the environment and into the oceans is also increasing, especially in the areas of the world where waste management practices are not keeping up with the rapid development.
Ms West said that she wasn't aware of a study that determines the effect that plastics have on sea turtles although it is well documented in the scientific community that plastic pollution poses a major threat to sea turtles. "I have personally observed nesting females and emerging hatchlings being affected by plastic pollution," she said.
She explained that plastic is easily ingested by sea turtles while they forage for their natural prey and plastic debris on nesting beaches is an obstacle to nesting females and emerging hatchlings.