All six species of sea turtles found in the Wider Caribbean are classified as “threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with human causes such as fisheries bycatch, direct take, coastal development, and pollution driving the species to extinction.
Since sea turtles are world travelers, frequently crossing international borders throughout their lifetimes. It, therefore, makes sense that successful conservation requires international cooperation. In the Wider Caribbean, untangling the tangle of international obligations is complicated by the fact that there are states that are fully independent and states that are dependent territories with varying degrees of autonomy. Rather than delve into details of individual countries’ obligations, this section provides a broad overview of some of these commitments.
We will start with what is probably the most well known piece of international law in sea turtle conservation - the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. All species of sea turtles are listed on Appendix I, which means that international trade in sea turtles and sea turtle products for commercial purposes is prohibited. CITES ban has been instrumental in reducing trade in tortoiseshell, eggs, and other products, but CITES does not apply to domestic transactions. Although the majority of countries in the world are bound by the obligations under CITES, enforcement remains a concern.
OTHER CONSERVATION MEASURES
There are two agreements that cover the majority of countries in the Wider Caribbean and that provide for sea turtle conservation measures that are broader than CITES. One is the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles (IAC) and the other is the Protocol Concerning Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife to the Cartagena Convention (SPAW). In general, countries on the continent are parties to the IAC, while the island nations are parties to SPAW, although, there are some gaps and overlaps.*
IAC is a convention that deals exclusively with protection and conservation of sea turtles, with a particular focus on interactions with fisheries. SPAW, on the other hand, covers various species as well as protected areas. All species of sea turtles are listed on Annex II of the SPAW Protocol, affording them the highest level of protection available under the agreement.
First, let’s look at the common obligations under SPAW and IAC. Both conventions prohibit direct take of sea turtles, eggs, body parts, or products, subject to exemptions to meet the subsistence needs of traditional communities. Domestic trade is prohibited, and countries are encouraged to take measures to minimize serious disturbance of sea turtles during periods of biological stress, such as nesting. Both conventions ask the states to engage in scientific research, mutual cooperation, assistance and dissemination of information to the public and encouraging public participation.
Habitat protection is also required under SPAW and IAC. Designating as protected areas different habitats used by sea turtles is one of the recommended strategies. Both conventions require assessment of environmental impacts from projects however, the thresholds appear to be different. Thus, under IAC marine and coastal activities that may affect sea turtles and their habitats need to be reviewed, while under SPAW, a project needs to be reviewed if it would have a negative environmental impact and significantly affect sea turtles.
Now let’s look at some of the major differences between IAC and SPAW. In terms of geographical coverage, the IAC is broader as it applies to the Atlantic and the Pacific waters under the jurisdiction of its parties. It also applies to vessels carrying a flag of one of the parties operating on the high seas. With respect to incidental take, although both conventions address the issue, the provisions under IAC focus on interactions with fisheries and go into significant details around the use of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), while SPAW prohibitions are broader, applying to any sources of incidental take.
From this overview, emerge two conclusions. First, there is a common understanding that sea turtles are ecologically, economically, and culturally important species that are threatened by human activities and require special measures to ensure their survival. Second, the majority of countries in the Caribbean have agreed to implement measures that go beyond prohibiting direct take in order to help sea turtles. However, these obligations are not always reflected in domestic laws and policies.
* For example, none of the U.K. Overseas Territories are subject to IAC or SPAW, but the majority of them are covered by the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) which provides similar protection to sea turtles.