WIDECAST Sea Turtle Recovery Action Plan for the Netherlands Antilles


The Netherlands Antilles consists of five Caribbean islands. The leeward islands are Curaçao and Bonaire, close to the mainland of Venezuela, while the windward islands are St. Maarten, St. Eustatius, and Saba, forming part of the Lesser Antilles archipelago. The sea turtles which are most abundant in the waters of the Netherlands Antilles are the green-back turtle, or tortuga blanku (Chelonia mydas) and the hawksbill, or karet (Eretmochelys imbricata). This is not surprising, since these species are generally found closely associated with Thalassia seagrass meadows and coral reefs, respectively, and these habitats are widespread in the Netherlands Antilles. The loggerhead, or kawama (Caretta caretta) is less common and often encountered further offshore, although it is also present in some of the inner bays, such as Lac Bay in Bonaire. The leatherback, or driekiel (sometimes spelled drikil) (Dermochelys coriacea) is rare, being present on a seasonal basis to nest. Information from all five islands indicates that sea turtles used to be far more abundant than they are today.

The sea turtle populations that remain in the Netherlands Antilles are stressed for many reasons. A major consideration is the destruction and/or modification of habitat. Almost all nesting beaches have disappeared or have been degraded because of sand mining or commercial and touristic development of the coast; further, beaches are altered or trampled for recreation. Light from nearshore buildings disorients hatchlings, confusing them so that they do not find the sea, while too many people scare the females away. Pollution from both land-based and marine sources (sewage, garbage, and oil) is an increasing problem throughout the Caribbean, and the Netherlands Antilles is no exception. Anchoring and careless diving behavior have degraded coral reef ecosystems and diseases (e.g., natural bleaching, black band disease) have also taken their toll. The extent to which these phenomena have reduced important turtle foraging grounds has not been quantified. Marine turtles are also vulnerable to a tumor disease known as fibropapillomas that has affected our green turtles and is known to be fatal in other areas. Finally, there is the legacy of more than three centuries of uncontrolled harvest. While progress has been made toward protecting turtles in the Netherlands Antilles, particularly in Bonaire, regulatory mechanisms and enforcement remain inadequate on the whole.

The objective of this document is not only to summarize the status of sea turtles, including agents that may compromise their continued survival, but also to recommend solutions to contemporary stresses. First, it is clear that a more comprehensive knowledge of essential habitats is necessary. This will require systematic surveys of potential foraging and nesting areas. The best areas should be considered for protected status. Within these areas, activities that threaten sea turtles or the habitats upon which they depend should be controlled or prohibited. Specific management plans for important foraging and nesting areas need to be developed and implemented. This will require the involvement of local authorities who have the responsibility to draft regulatory guidelines and provide enforcement. It is of great importance that materials be developed to educate the public (residents, especially fishermen, and tourists) as to why all these measures for the protection of sea turtles are necessary. Such materials should emphasize national pride as well, noting that the Netherlands Antilles is taking its place in the community of Wider Caribbean nations in recognizing the depleted nature of sea turtle stocks, and in working to ensure that these animals do not disappear from our region.

An essential part of protecting sea turtles involves updating national and local laws and regulations. In the Netherlands Antilles, on the national as well as the island levels, much can be done to improve conservation legislation. Some of the islands, especially Bonaire, have good legislation in place to protect sea turtles. Intermediate legislation is in place in Saba; Curaçao, St. Maarten, and St. Eustatius have no legislation whatsoever to protect turtles. Comprehensive island legislation, including provisions for penalty and enforcement, is seen as a priority for the Netherlands Antilles. It is also recommended that relevant international and regional protective legislation (CITES, UNEP Cartagena Convention, and MARPOL) be implemented. Finally, suitable legislation strengthening enforcement is a necessity.

A Netherlands Antilles Sea Turtle Project is proposed with the primary goal of achieving a sustained recovery of depleted sea turtle stocks in the Netherlands Antilles and secondary goals of gathering more data on the local distribution of turtles (especially nesting activity) and promoting a public understanding of why the conservation and recovery of sea turtles in the Netherlands Antilles is necessary. To achieve these goals, complementary action is required at both the island and national levels. It is essential that each island of the Netherlands Antilles implement its own sea turtle project. Because each island has its own local government, NGOs and legislation, the implementation of sea turtle conservation and recovery actions will be most effective at the island level. In each case this will require a Lead Organization to support and execute the project, a timetable and budget, a realistic survey and monitoring program to gather data on turtle distribution and nesting, lobbying efforts on behalf of improved legislation and enforcement, and increased public awareness and involvement.

In concert with the island projects, action by the Central Government is needed to link the island programs together and to execute important national and international legislation. The government agency responsible for the environment is the Department of Public Health and Environment, which is currently being restructured to place greater emphasis on the environment. As part of an effort at national integration, the Department should (1) urge every island to design and implement a local sea turtle conservation project, (2) follow-up on the island projects and support local organizations, (3) adopt national legislation to protect sea turtles (ideally within the framework of holistic legislation protecting marine resources and the marine environment in general), (4) produce and distribute general information on regulations and the protection of sea turtles, (5) establish communication and information exchange among the islands by means of a newsletter or other mechanism, and (6) raise and allocate funds for local sea turtle conservation. Cooperative programs with neighboring nations should be initiated at the national level.

Using this decentralized approach, it is anticipated that several island programs will be imple- mented in a relatively short period of time, perhaps by 1995. Specific results and outputs are expected to include (1) comprehensive legislation for each island, as well as at the national level, that protects all sea turtles at all times and major parts of their environment (the latter may be achieved by the designnation and support of Marine Parks or other conservation areas), (2) a better knowledge of the distribution and abundance of sea turtles, especially the nesting beaches of these animals, (3) detailed recommendations to each island government regarding the protection and conservation of suitable nesting beaches (a balance between development and conservation must be sought in this regard), and (4) a better understanding on the part of the citizenry of why it is important to protect and conserve sea turtles for future generations. 

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