Turtles of the Caribbean

Managing the traditional turtle fishery of the Turks and Caicos Islands

The Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) is a UK Overseas Territory (UKOT) lying in the northern Caribbean, where hunting sea turtles has been a tradition for centuries. Concerned about the declining turtle nesting populations, the TCI Government invited MCS to start the TCI Turtle Project in 2008.

This groundbreaking project involved working with the government and the fishing communities to learn more about the turtles found in TCI waters along with those that the fishers would catch. Using the innovative Community Voice Method, we also filmed a wide range of community members talking about their relationships with turtles. The resulting film was played back to over 250 people across the TCI, providing them with an opportunity to voice their opinions on conservation measures. The information from these discussions was combined with our scientific information, and helped to develop detailed recommendations to improve the management of the traditional turtle fishery.

In 2014, we were delighted when our recommendations were accepted and new regulations came into force. This including a maximum size limit to protect green and hawksbill turtles that were close to or already at a size associated with breeding. An eight month closed season was also introduced for the critically endangered hawksbill turtle during its nesting season, adding an extra layer of protection for these mature individuals that are so vital in sustaining populations.

Worryingly, the illegal landings of two large satellite-tracked green turtles in the last two years suggest some fishers are breaking the law. It’s now time to revisit the TCI and its fishermen to see how the regulations are working and whether they’re having the desired impact.

Through generous support from the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) this important work is being carried out by our UKOT Conservation Officer Amdeep Sanghera. Amdeep coordinated the TCI Turtle Project for MCS when it started 10 years ago, and recently visited the TCI to re-engage with his network of fisher friends to assess their awareness of the rules and compliance.

“There seems to have been a change in attitude and practice when it comes to turtle fishing in TCI. Many of the fishermen who I routinely saw landing large breeding turtles said they don’t catch them any longer. And repeatedly fishermen echoed the conservation messages of needing to protect large breeding turtles. Even though we think some fishers are not observing the law, the sense that many are is encouraging.”

Also promising is the local perception that more turtles are nesting across the islands’ beaches. To fully understand the current state of TCI’s turtles and the fishery, including any illegal fishing, Amdeep will work with local researchers to monitor the fishery at the docksides, as well as turtle nesting on selected beaches.

He’ll also survey fishers and government enforcement officers to record local perceptions of the fishery regulations. With all this information, we’ll develop recommendations for the government specifying what action must be taken to ensure the fishery is properly managed in order to secure a brighter future for the region’s endangered turtle populations.