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An Unusual Turtle Arrest

By Steve Trent, 20th September 2013

EJF has worked in Liberia for two years, building links with local communities affected by pirate trawlers fishing illegally in the inshore areas. The relationships we have built have given us an insight into the fishing practices of local communities and, with the support of Save our Seas Foundation amongst others, EJF recently embarked on a pilot project to investigate and influence the local catch of endangered species including sea turtles and shark species.

Liberia is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which protects certain species of turtles, sharks and dolphins from being caught and traded internationally, due to their status as endangered species or species under threat. Under this Convention, Liberia is mandated to introduce national legislation to ban the capture and international trade of the protected wildlife. Liberia currently has no policies or regulations on the capture of endangered sharks, but has introduced laws banning the capture and killing of turtles and dolphins.

Sharks have long been caught in Liberia at moderate levels for local consumption. In recent years, however, efforts to catch sharks have increased due to the high value that their fins command from traders, who purchase them dried and ship them to East Asia.
Traditionally, Liberian artisanal fishermen did not catch turtles and they were protected by communities. Unfortunately, as illegal or ‘pirate’ trawlers started plying the waters of Liberia and forced fishermen to change their fishing grounds and habits, turtles became another source of income and food for local populations.

EJF’s Liberian Biodiversity Project aims to support Liberia in enforcing existing laws and developing the data required for new legislation. Two EJF biodiversity officers cover the country’s largest landing site in West Point, Monrovia, and the northern fishing port of Robertsport and a third officer will soon start work in the south. Visiting the landing sites of the fishermen every day when canoes come in from the sea, they record the numbers and species of sharks, turtles and dolphins that have been caught.
Species commonly found include leatherback turtles, flat back turtles and loggerhead turtles as well as many species of sharks including three varieties of hammerheads that are classified as endangered.

Our aim is to establish a baseline on the type and quantity of endangered species that are being caught and to present our findings to the Government of Liberia, which we already work with to confront industrial illegal fishing. We will encourage the Government to increase its efforts to enforce existing laws in a sensitive but effective manner, and develop further rules to cover endangered sharks. At the same time, we will work to communicate these regulations to local communities and help them understand the importance of these species to the marine environment, on which they depend for food and income.

As it is already illegal to catch turtles under Liberian law, if our biodiversity officers find evidence of fishermen catching them, they instigate action. Projects prior to ours have begun to educate fishermen in West Point and Robertsport about the need to protect turtles and explained the laws that prevent their intentional killing. The majority of fishermen understand and endeavor to avoid catching turtles. Those found to be intentionally catching and killing them are reported to the police and the Bureau of National Fisheries (BNF). If a live turtle is rescued, it is released back into the water by EJF’s staff, local authorities and communities.

On the 5th August a small boy approached Alphonso, our biodiversity officer in West Point, Monrovia, to disclose that a local fisherman was hiding a turtle amongst his nets. Alphonso lifted the nets to find a flat back turtle underneath.
As usual the police and BNF were notified and the fisherman was arrested and taken to the police station to be charged. This is where the story took a slightly unusual turn. As the turtle was evidence of the fisherman’s illegal activity, it was decided that it would need to be presented as legal proof. As a result the turtle was carried to the police station, and Alphonso was assured it would ‘sleep’ and be protected. Concerned, Alphonso checked on it periodically to check it was safe.
The next day, after the turtle had served its evidentiary purpose, it was returned to Alphonso who carried it to West Point beach and released it into the sea. The event attracted a large crowd.

The release of the turtle and the fisherman’s punishment served to remind the local population that catching turtles is a crime under Liberian law. We hope that the continued diligence of community members like the little boy, and the actions of our staff, the police, BNF and the court system will eventually result in an end to the Liberian population catching endangered species, allowing the marine ecosystem in Liberia to recover its richness. We will also work with BNF and police to improve the system and speed the process of species being documented and released to their natural habitat.

Over the coming months, Alphonso and other EJF team members will blog about their extraordinary work on the front line of efforts to ensure the protection of some of the sea’s most critically threatened species.

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