Philippine Marine Turtles: Victims of Tourism?

Tourism may be one of the reasons people flock to areas where marine species are common.  But sadly, tourism can also play a significant role in making some species – including turtles – become close to extinction. By Henrylito D. Tacio

Davao, Philippines, 15 March 2019. “In the Philippines, where it seems that every inch of our beaches will soon be developed for tourism, there will be a big threat for marine turtles,” said Dr. Arnel “AA” Yaptinchay, Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines (MWWP) founder and director.

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According to Yaptinchay, development of coastal regions could displace marine turtles from one of their most important life cycle habitats – their nesting beaches.

“Lights, infrastructure, noise, domestic animals, and pollution will not only disturb the nesting females, but also their hatchlings,” he said. And worryingly, marine turtles will not nest when disturbed in those ways.

Studies have shown that marine turtles spend most of their life in the sea and even mate there.  But when the time comes to lay their eggs, female turtles return to shore, usually in the same place where they were hatched.

MWWP’s Dr. Arnel Yaptinchay, says that tourism can contribute to destruction of marine turtles’ nesting grounds.

MWWP’s Dr. Arnel Yaptinchay, says that tourism can contribute to destruction of marine turtles’ nesting grounds.

“If you imagine a first-time nester turtle approaching its place of birth, I would guess there would be very little space left for it to nest (at many sites),” says  Yaptinchay. “And there would probably be enough disturbance developed to shoo it away, too.” He points out that tourists and operators are preventing turtles from fulfilling their life purpose. “For me this is very tragic,” he adds, noting that the number of nesting sites has diminished significantly over the last 35-50 years.

The degradation of their habitat has contributed to the decimation of marine turtles across the region.  The results from increased effluent and contamination from coastal development, construction of marinas, increased boat traffic, and harvest of near-shore marine algae resources have all taken a toll.

In some instances, tourism facilities view marine turtles as attractions.  “This is fine if you view marine turtles from a distance, but most (beach owners) are greedy and would take a turtle and put it in a tank for secured viewing for their guests,” Yaptinchay warned. Worse, some beach owners capture and tie a turtle to a tree. “This has happened and is still happening,” he added.

Not all hazards are though simple greed; some are through misguided help. Many resorts on islands think they are helping turtles by keeping hatchlings in containers and allowing them to grow for a few months before releasing them into the open sea.

“What (the resorts) do not realise is that they have just disrupted the whole life cycle of the turtles,” Yaptinchay said. “Hatchlings are supposed to be in open pelagic waters for the first decade of their lives. So an important phase in their lives is affected.”

Turtle eggs and fetuses. Courtesy H Tacio.

Turtle eggs and fetuses. Courtesy H Tacio.

Of the seven marine turtle species known to man, five of them are found in the Philippines area and all of them are considered “threatened species,” under Switzerland-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) rules.

“All of the species found in our country are endangered except for the hawksbill turtle, which is critically endangered,” said Yaptinchay. “The only sure thing is that marine turtle populations are under tremendous threat.  If these threats are not stopped, extinction is imminent.”

But for the turtles, possibly the biggest threat comes from harvesting of eggs, juveniles and adults. In southern capital Davao City, it is common sight to see pawikan, as marine turtles are locally known, being sold in the public markets.  

Turtle hatchlings in a tank. Courtesy H. Tacio.

Turtle hatchlings in a tank. Courtesy H. Tacio.

“Although local fishermen are very much aware that selling endangered marine creatures is illegal and prohibited by the government, they are still doing it,” said journalism trainee Truman Phillip Calipes.  “They walk around, selling the pawikan they have caught from one house to another.” And although most of these fishermen allegedly catch the turtles by accident, the problem is still serious.

“Instead of returning these turtles back into the water,” Calipes wrote, “the fishermen just put them in a different barrel and hide them in their fishing boats to elude detection from the local authorities when they arrive at the port for inspection.”

The MWWP asserts egg collection is particularly prevalent on unmanaged turtle nesting beaches.  “Even in areas where there are conservation programs, poaching still persists in the community,” it notes. One report by researcher Vincent Go noted that: “Endangered sea turtle eggs are being harvested in Tawi-Tawi (extreme south Philippines) seas.  Sea turtle eggs are harvested mostly by the Bajaus or Samal peoples.”

The MWWP admits that it is impossible to prevent natural predation, mortalities due to natural causes, or changes to the environment brought about by climate change harming turtles. But reducing or even eliminating human-caused threats is possible, it says.

“The Philippines lies within the Coral Triangle, the most biodiverse marine environment in the world,” it adds. “With this richness comes the responsibility to manage human activities around these resources to preserve ecological processes in order to maintain a healthy environment.”