Serious threat to most important nesting and feeding area for Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas) in South-East Asia – and nobody car

South Maratua, Derawan Archipelago, East-Borneo, Indonesia. On November 30 Pak Drepin a local fisherman discovered a huge abandoned fishing net which was partly entangled on the coral reef. When he tried to take the net out of the water he was struck by surprise as the net turned out to be extremely long (approx. 1000 meters long) and contained an enormous number of sea turtles. In some sectors the net contained 10 drowned sea turtles per every 20 meters of the net. Of course the net was not only full with dead sea turtles but also plenty of sharks and other animals.

On the same day divers from the nearby Nunukan Dive Resort discovered the deadly trap during a dive. Not a nice sight for recreational divers. They immediately cut free and recovered as much of the net as they could until their tanks were empty.

The day after guests and staff from Nunukan and from their sister island Nabucco as well as police army and navy set off to South Maratua to recover the remainder of the net. Whilst they were able to cut free and rescue a few turtles and sharks that were still alive, the overall death toll was terrible. As the net was recovered by several teams over a period of several days the exact number of dead sea turtles is difficult to tell it is confirmed to be above 100. Initially it was feared that the total loss of sea turtles could be up to 500 animals.

Only 10 days after the incident described above, another illegal fishing net was discovered in the same area. This net was 180 meters long and contained 12 dead sea turtles and 2 dead blacktip sharks. When the authorities tried to detain a small speed boat which was nearby, it sped away out to the open sea. The patrol boat followed and tried to catch it, but was not fast enough to catch up with the small speed boat. Finally they had to give up the chase. The following day, the authorities returned to the same spot with a faster boat and again saw the small speed boat. The speed boat again sped away, and the patrol boat attempted to give chase, but unfortunately had insufficient fuel to continue and had to return to Maratua Island.

Due to the fact that the small speed boat headed far out to the open sea it seems that the turtle hunters have a large mother ship out in the Celebes Sea from which they operate with smaller boats. This reminds us of the incident in 2007 when a large Chinese fishing boat was discovered in the area with nearly 400 stuffed dead sea turtles on board. It was said that it also served as a mother ship to which smaller boats delivered sea turtles.

This is the third known incident of this scale and kind in this relatively small area:

1. 2005 a similar net was discovered nearby a popular feeding ground for sea turtles: almost 150 dead sea turtles were recovered from this net.
2. 2007 an illegal Chinese fishing boat was controlled. It had nearly 400 stuffed dead sea turtles aboard.
3. 2009 more than 100 sea turtles are killed in a large illegal fishing net.

Hundreds of dead sea turtles accounted for in this area since 2005 is most likely only the peak of the iceberg as nobody knows how many illegal sea turtle hunters were successful and managed to sneak away undiscovered.

It is well known amongst illegal fishermen from as far as China that the Derawan Archipelago is highly frequented by sea turtles. These poachers also know that the authorities responsible for enforcing the ban on turtle killing do not have the resources to conduct enforcement patrols. Most of the time they do not even have enough money to pay for fuel!

On the other hand, it is obvious that there are large, well funded and well equipped organizations targeting and exploiting the sea turtle population in the Derawan Archipelago in a highly sophisticated, large scale, and very efficient manner, and have been doing so for several years already. Clearly, this is unsustainable and will result in the local extinction of these turtle populations if these illegal fishing operations are allowed to continue.

The Derawan Archipelago is said to be the most important nesting and feeding area for Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas) in South-East Asia. It is well within the area of the so-called Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI). But nevertheless there are practically no patrolling activities undertaken in this area.

The Turtle Foundation has been doing its very best for nearly 10 years now to protect three of the most important nesting islands in this area from nest-looting. On these three islands a total of nearly 1 million sea turtles hatches every year. However, the Turtle Foundation simply does not have the financial capabilities to undertake patrolling activities at sea.

The Turtle Foundation calls on the people in charge of the relevant authorities, of the Coral Triangle Initiative and of the large international NGOs to acknowledge and to face the seriousness of the ongoing threat to the sea turtle population of the Derawan Archipelago and to help protect them!

December 21, 2009

Dr. Frank Zindel
Turtle Foundation (Switzerland)