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The Online Magazine for Sustainable Seas
September, 1999 Vol. 2 No. 9


Message from the Sea
Researchers at the world's first trans-frontier protected area for marine turtles turn to satellite telemetry in search of information that can help save one of the world's oldest living - and most endangered - reptiles.

By Asuncion E. Sia
IEC Specialist, Coastal Resource Management Project







aila takes one last awkward step toward the sea and then pauses, as if wary of some danger in the darkness ahead. Then she ambles forward, her movements becoming more certain as she enters the shallow waters. A few feet farther, her ungainly crawl becomes a graceful dance in the sea. She's off, and, fingers crossed, I call out to her, "'Bye, Laila! See you on the Web!"

"Laila" crawls back to the sea after being "tagged"
with a satellite transmitter. (A. Sia, July 1999)

Laila, a green sea turtle, carries a newly outfitted satellite transmitter on her upper shell. The transmitter is a Telonics ST14 model with whip antenna coated with a green, anti-fouling paint to prevent algae, barnacles and other marine organisms from sticking to it. Soon, we expect it to transmit ultra high frequency (UHF) signals - or "messages" - to recording instruments on board satellites orbiting the earth. The recorded data, in turn, will be sent to receiving stations on the ground and used to calculate Laila's location. We expect to receive the location calculations by e-mail through an automatic distribution service designed to deliver data to users. We will then plot these locations on a map and put them on-line on our website at, allowing Internet users to follow Laila as she journeys across the seas from the marine turtle sanctuary island of Baguan in Tawi-Tawi, at the southwest border of the Philippines with Malaysia, to still unknown destinations. Baguan is one of nine islands included in what is known as the Turtle Islands Heritage Protected Area (TIHPA), the world's first trans-frontier protected area (six of the islands are administered by the Philippines and three are administered by Malaysia) and the nesting ground of the only major green turtle aggregation in Southeast Asia. From our telemetry work here, we hope to generate information to be used as input to the management and conservation of marine turtle habitats.

For now, the only indication we have that the transmitter is working is the occasional "Beep" from a portable tracking device that Dr. Jack Frazier, a well-known turtle biologist currently with the Smithsonian Institution and our turtle telemetry project's science advisor, brought with him on this trip. "Beep!" it goes, as we prepare to head for base.

"Laila?" a member of the tagging team asks.

"Perhaps. Or maybe it's Anita, I can't tell," says Dr. Frazier. The tracking device does not indicate which transmitter is sending the signal, or where the signal may be coming from.

Anita is the green turtle we marked with a transmitter barely 48 hours ago on Selingan Island, Sabah Parks, Malaysia. Both Laila and Anita have been designated "Ocean Ambassadors" under a satellite telemetry project being undertaken jointly by the Pawikan Conservation Project of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), DENR's USAID-funded Coastal Resource Management Project (CRMP), Smithsonian Institution, and World Wildlife Fund-Philippines. This is only the second time that the project is tagging green turtles with transmitters in this area. The first tagging occurred in October 1998, with two transmitters deployed on green turtles we called Hani and Yumi.

The trouble with satellite tracking sea turtles is that UHF signals do not propagate through saltwater and thus can be received only when the transmitter is on the surface. This means that the success of a transmission will depend on at least three events happening all at once: the turtle is on the surface, the transmitter is on its "duty cycle" (a period within which the transmitter is set to signals), and there is a satellite "in view".

Also, the technology costs. For most of the morning yesterday, Dr. Frazier was painstakingly testing and retesting Laila's transmitter to assure himself that it was working. "Is that really necessary?" I asked. "Wouldn't it use up the batteries?"

"I'm paranoid," Dr. Frazier quipped. One transmitter costs US$3,500 - it is important to ensure that it is working because once it disappears in the sea with the turtle, we may not see it again, ever.

Dr. Jack Frazier, the satellite telemetry project's science advisor, attaches a satellite transmitter on Laila's upper shell.

Still, barring any glitches, such as premature battery failure or a broken antenna, the transmitter will allow us to directly track Laila's movements in the sea and collect information that scientists can use for the marine turtle management and conservation. We tracked our first two turtles - Hani and Yumi - by satellite for close to four months.

Hani and Yumi (as well as Laila and Anita) were selected for tagging because they had already nested four or five times and thus were expected to begin their migration soon. But, for about two months, they stayed close to the Turtle Islands, where Yumi is believed to have nested again. Then, just as Hani was moving deeper into Philippine waters and Yumi appeared to be heading for Celebes Sea, the signals from their transmitters stopped. We suspect the transmitters' batteries failed, or their antennas were broken. The turtles may have even been caught in a fishing net and drowned. We don't know for sure. We are banking on Laila and Anita to give us more information, but, for now, we can only speculate about the turtles' migration paths and final destinations, tweaking our interest in these mysterious creatures even more.

urtles have existed for about 200 million years, living in a variety of environments from dry land to the open sea. Of the more than 220 species of turtles, only seven are marine, and five of these - Chelonia mydas (green turtle), Eretmochelys imbricata (hawksbill turtle), Caretta caretta (loggerhead turtle), Lepidochelys olivacea (olive ridley turtle), and Dermochelys coriacea (leatherback turtle) - can be found in the Philippines.

Turtles have changed little since they roamed our planet during the time of the dinosaurs. These reptiles live inside shells, which are made up of a top shell called "carapace", and another shell over the belly, which is called "plastron". The "carapace" and "plastron" are joined along both sides at the "bridge". The different species are distinguished by the shape and appearance of their carapace, as well as by the scales on their heads, which are distinct in each species.

For all that, scientists say they know little about the sea turtles' life history, and for good reason: Except for the first two months, sea turtles spend most of their lives in the sea; females return to land only to nest, and the males rarely come back, if at all. Turtle biologists do know this much, however: females will always return to nest (usually at night) on the same beach where they emerged as hatchlings. Researchers have thus devised ways to track these nesters, by attaching numbered metal tags on their flippers, for example, or recently, through satellite telemetry.

Researchers believe turtles can live to a hundred years or more, rarely die of natural cause and remain productive for a greater part of their lives. Laying 100 or more eggs up to seven times in a nesting season, a female turtle can potentially produce thousands of eggs in its lifetime.

"I've personally seen only one sea turtle that could be said to have died of old age," says Dr. Colin Limpus. Dr. Limpus, a turtle biologist from Australia, is a surprise addition to the tagging team. He had met up with Dr. Frazier at July's symposium on sea turtle biology in Kota Kinabalu and decided to join this trip. It has been a privilege to watch these two experts working together, all the time discussing their favorite topic - turtles, what else.

Yesterday morning, I sat with Dr. Limpus for an interview. "Yes," he confirmed, "turtle populations worldwide are in decline." He explained that the trend is largely the effect of massive exploitation of turtles during World War II. "But the populations would have been able to recover had it not been for the continued harvesting of turtle eggs in major turtle nesting grounds."

Turtle eggs are a delicacy in many countries, and so have been harvested on a massive scale for decades. Here in the Philippine Turtle Islands, harvesting was close to 100% before the government instituted a conservation program in the 1980s. Today, egg collection has been reduced somewhat, thanks to regulations limiting the number of eggs that can be collected in a nesting season. On Baguan Island, no collection is allowed, while on the five other Philippine Turtle Islands - Taganak, Lihiman, Bakkungan, Langaan and Boan - collection is limited to 60% of total egg production.

Because green turtles take up to 50 years to become sexually mature, the effects of these conservation efforts may not be evident in at least another 30 years, when the first batch of nesters produced under the conservation program would have returned to the Turtle Islands. But experts believe egg collection remains much too high, even at the level allowed by law. Natural hatching rates for sea turtles average 85%. The survival rate of hatchlings is not known, but given the threats these young turtles face - mostly natural predators and lights from fishing boats - it is assumed to be quite low. Adult turtles, meanwhile, may get trapped in nets or long-lines and drown, or be caught for their meat.

According to conservationists, to reverse the turtles' decline, egg collection must be reduced to zero, at least until such time when populations have recovered. But this is easier said than done. There is money to be made in the trade of turtle eggs. At Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia, the eggs sell for MR$0.50 to MR$0.80 apiece (about Php5 to Php8). The business is illegal. Although the sale of eggs is legally allowed in the Philippines, the eggs are exported to Malaysia in violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES), to which both Malaysia and the Philippines are contracting parties. In addition, Malaysia has strict turtle conservation laws which prohibit the sale of turtle eggs. Still, according to reports, egg traders are enjoying brisk business - their merchandise is often sold out before mid-day, even during police crackdowns when business can happen only clandestinely.

For decades, world trade - not only in turtle eggs but also in turtles and other turtle products - increased alongside global trade as a whole, largely as a result of the modernization of transportation, which made it possible to move goods over longer distances at a shorter time. "Everywhere where there were turtles, generally the trade was very heavy," observes Dr. Frazier. Official records show that in 1972, some 200 tons of turtle skin was traded in the world market. This number, which translates to more than 26,600 adult turtles killed, is probably an "underestimate", as much of the trade was not documented, says Dr. Frazier.

To a certain extent, the enforcement of the CITES since 1975 put a lid on the market, but, in many areas, the turtle trade stopped simply because the resource has been wiped out. Dr. Limpus says domestic trade in turtles still happens in countries such as Indonesia, for example, where turtle eggs and meat are considered a prized commodity. International trade also occurs among countries that have not signed up with the CITES, and illegal trade happens in some of the CITES contracting countries, where it is reported to be controlled by the same cartel that controls illegal trade in drugs and other contraband commodities, including wildlife.

From 1970 until the government banned bekko (hawksbill turtle shell) imports in 1992, Japan imported about 754 tons of raw shell, representing more than 700,000 large hawksbills. Reports say the bekko trade continues - although illegally and at a much reduced level - even as, according to one report, "the Japanese government is finally starting to take a serious interest in enforcing its own conservation laws." The Japan Bekko Association reported in October 1998 that five persons were arrested in Nagoya for attempting to smuggle 66 kg of bekko allegedly obtained in Singapore into the country.

In August last year, ENN News reported that a two-week sting operation conducted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) at the John F. Kennedy Airport snared 12 people who illegally smuggled sea turtle meat and eggs into the United States from Costa Rica, Guatemala and El Salvador. A USFWS special agent said he expected "maybe one or two seizures" and was "surprised by the number of people bringing in sea turtle products." Indeed, TRAFFIC North America, an organization dedicated to monitoring trade in wildlife, has noted an "upswing" in both legal and illegal trade in reptiles in the US.

Environmentalists are also closely watching Asia. The region is one of the world's largest exporters of wildlife and wildlife products for the international market as well as a significant consumer. "China," says Dr. Frazier, "is a big black hole for turtles throughout Southeast Asia."

n a fast liberalizing and globalizing world market, trade by any name can be a threat to the turtles, and to wildlife in general. Conservationists are particularly wary when environmental concerns are played down in the name of "free trade."
In a controversial decision in March 1998, the disputes settlement panel of the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled against the US in a case filed in 1996 by Malaysia, Thailand, Pakistan, and India. The complaint focused on a US embargo on wild-caught shrimp from countries that have not been "certified" by the Department of State. It claimed the US embargo was an "improper restriction on trade" and therefore in violation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

Shrimp trawl nets are a major cause of human-induced sea turtle deaths - it is estimated that every year, 150,000 sea turtles are drowned in shrimping nets. Bowing to pressure from environmental groups, the US government promulgated in the early 1990s regulations requiring that all shrimp imported into the United States come from a certified country. To receive certification, a country must show evidence that their government has adopted a regulatory program requiring Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) on all shrimp trawl vessels, or it must show evidence that its shrimp harvesting does not adversely affect sea turtles. The regulation, according to the complainants, constituted a "non-tariff barrier", which is prohibited under GATT.

A subsequent ruling of the WTO's appellate body in October 1998 failed to allay the conservationists' fears. The appellate body sided with the US by stating that the disputes settlement panel erred in claiming that it could not accept non-requested information from non-governmental organizations, and that the US turtle-safe shrimp measure was outside the GATT article which covers regulations with environmental objectives. It ruled, however, that the turtle-safe shrimp measure was being applied by the US "in a manner which amounts to a means not just of 'unjustifiable discrimination' but also of 'arbitrary discrimination'" against some countries and thus was contrary to the requirements of GATT.

Free trade advocates say the decision was the only fair decision that the appeals body could make. Free trade, they argue, means equal access to resources and markets, and national regulations must not discriminate between countries where the same conditions prevail. They concede that environmental standards are important but insist that such standards must be set and adopted under a multilateral trading system, and not be imposed unilaterally by any government on other sovereign nations.

Conservationists, on the other hand, fear the decision has set a precedent that can result in lower compliance with environmental standards by global market players. Turtle conservationists, in particular, are concerned it will lead to even less protection for the world's remaining sea turtle populations. With the threat of embargo gone, they point out, there is now no compelling reason for shrimp trawlers to invest in turtle-safe gear. And if nothing is done about this soon, they say, time will run out on these ancient creatures.

All seven of the world's sea turtle species are now endangered. The loss of individuals to direct exploitation and as by-catch in trawling operations has had a particularly devastating impact on turtle populations worldwide. Because sea turtles are slow to reach sexual maturity, they are unable to reproduce at a sustainable rate. What makes matters worse is that turtle habitats are fast disappearing under the onslaught of destructive fishing practices and indiscriminate coastal development for housing and industry. The loss of nesting beaches is especially crucial for sea turtles because turtles breed and nest in the same site where they hatched. In Texas, researchers have tried to replace extinct turtle populations by "transplanting" turtle eggs taken from a nesting beach across the Mexican border - their efforts have so far yielded only additional evidence to support the prevailing belief that once a turtle population becomes extinct, it remains extinct forever.

Ironically, every side in this argument claims they have no quarrel with turtle conservation. Even the WTO appeals body took pains to explain that their decision was not a decision against environmental protection. It said, "We have not decided that protection and preservation of the environment is of no significance to the Members of the WTO. Clearly, it is. We have not decided that the sovereign nations that are Members of the WTO cannot adopt effective measures to protect endangered species, such as sea turtles. Clearly, they can and should. And we have not decided that sovereign states should not act together bilaterally, plurilaterally or multilaterally, either within the WTO or in other international fora, to protect endangered species or to otherwise protect the environment. Clearly, they should and do… WTO Members are free to adopt their own policies aimed at protecting the environment as long as, in so doing, they fulfill their obligations and respect the rights of other Members under the WTO Agreement."

here we are, on this remote sanctuary island of Baguan, the battle for the sea turtles' survival seems far and unimportant, and yet it dominates most of our day - even our meals are peppered with small and serious talk about turtles.
The DENR wardens are up early each morning to check the incidence of nesting during the previous night, count nests, transfer those eggs in danger of being flooded by seawater to the island's hatchery, and release hatchlings from the hatchery onto the beach. At night they monitor the nesters that climb up the beach, checking their tag numbers or attaching new tags to their flippers. Armed with a camera and alert to every photo opportunity, I keep a close watch on their activities, or roam the island for a rare glimpse of nesters going back to the sea at daybreak.

Remote and secluded, Baguan is an ideal nesting ground for the shy sea turtle. (A. Sia, July 1999)

Baguan is almost picture perfect - its white sand beach is nearly half as wide as it is long, its sunrise breathtaking, its sunset glorious. It is also, obviously, a special place. One can spend a whole night on the beach watching the turtles as they climb up and go down the beach. Or one can just sit quietly in the dark listening to the sounds of a nesting turtle - the deep breaths, the soft swishes as flippers sweep away sand. At daybreak, one can count turtle tracks and even meet up with hatchlings scurrying to the sea for their first swim. Divers can explore the reefs around the island. Romeo Trono, executive director of WWF-Philippines, who is also with us on this trip, says he knows of a dive site nearby where one can witness the turtles performing age-old mating rituals.

Baby turtles (called hatchlings) scurry to the sea for their first swim soon after emerging from their nests. (A. Sia, July 1999)

It seems sinful, but one cannot help dwelling on what can go wrong in this "paradise". The beach is littered with logs and other debris, mostly plastic packaging of all sorts. And one hears stories of egg poachers and trawlers and blast fishers, all reminders of the sea turtles' increasingly desperate plight.
In another place, at another time, the beeping sound of an electronic device may well be a nuisance, but these days, nothing can cheer us more. Each "beep" may be a message from our Ocean Ambassadors, assuring us that we are still on their tracks, and keeping our hopes alive: They're all right. §

Author's note: I stayed on Baguan with the rest of the tagging team from July 20 to July 23, 1999. Since then, we have downloaded Laila's and Anita's location information from our server. To our dismay, we found that we received only a few, poor quality positions from Anita on July 19 and July 20, immediately after we tagged her on Selingan Island, Sabah Parks, Malaysia, and then... nothing. We received some good signals from Laila until August 9, and then the tranmissions stopped. On August 14, Dr. Frazier sent me this e-mail:

Since Anita laid only 40 eggs on July 19, when she was tagged, there is a good chance that she returned to Selingan to nest again right after we tagged her, but we have been unable to verify this. It is still a mystery why her transmissions stopped so soon.

Laila stayed around Baguan for 2 weeks after tagging. Green turtles usually nest every two weeks during the nesting season -- could Laila have nested once more? Again this is a mystery.

What MIGHT have happened to either Anita or Laila?

Was the antenna damaged by being wedged against hard objects? This is likely to happen, but NOT so soon after the transmitters are attached.

Was the transmitter damaged by the actions of the turtle? This can happen, but again, it is not likely so soon after the transmitters are attached.

Did the batteries give out? This happens, but NOT so soon after deployment.
Did some kind of electronic failure occur in the transmitter? There are cases of transmitters going "off line" for a few weeks or months, and then suddenly coming back on again. The mysteries of electronics.

Was the transmitter dislodged from the turtle? Hard to believe.

Was the turtle captured, and the transmitter destroyed by the person(s) who captured her? A sad scenario, but definitely possible.

Maybe the turtle was caught underwater (in a net, say) and drowned, keeping the transmitter from the surface? Possible.

At this time, we can only speculate and hope that the turtles come back on-line soon. If anyone sees a turtle with a transmitter, please: inform us at




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