Peter Richardson, Species Policy Officer
Marine Conservation Society (MCS)
In March 2001, the Minister for Environment Michael Meacher launched the Marine Conservation Society's (MCS) Marine Turtle Conservation Programme (MTCP). MCS is the UK charity dedicated to the protection of the marine environment and its wildlife and is a joint lead partner in the UK Marine Turtles Grouped Species Action Plan (SAP). The SAP was published by English Nature in 1999 and outlines a comprehensive programme to enhance the conservation of marine turtles in UK waters and the UK Overseas Territories (UKOT's) (EN, 1999). The MTCP is supported by Cheltenham & Gloucester plc and has the delivery of the SAP at its core. By funding the MTCP, Cheltenham & Gloucester became the first business in biodiversity 'Champions' for a UK marine species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (Richardson, 2001).
Turtles in the UK
Marine turtles are not generally associated with Britain, but five species have been recorded in UK waters, including loggerhead (Caretta caretta), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), green (Chelonia mydas), Kemp's ridley (Lepidochelys kempi) and leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) (Pierpoint, 2000). The olive ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) occurs in the Atlantic Ocean and may occur in the waters of some Caribbean UKOT's, but there are no records of this species in (]K waters (Marquez, 1990). All of these species are listed as either endangered or critically endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) (Eckert et al, 1999).
The leatherback is a regular summer visitor to the UK, whereas the other species occurring in UK waters are considered to be 'coldstunned' strays, blown off course from warmer climes (Godley et a], 1998). UK marine turtle sightings and strandings records are held in the 'TURTLE' database, currently maintained by Rod Penrose of Marine Environmental Monitoring. Of the database's 743 records, 485 are of leatherback turtles (R. Penrose pers. comm.). Since 1980, an average of 10 live leatherback sightings and 6 dead strandings have been recorded each year (Pierpoint, 2000). Britain's leatherbacks are known to seasonally migrate from rookeries in South America, the southern Caribbean and possibly West Africa (Godley et al, 1998, Penrose pers. comm.). From August to October, leatherbacks occur off the western coast of the UK and occasionally venture into the English Channel (Pierpoint, 2000). In 1998 a dead specimen even washed up on the banks of the Thames on the outskirts of east London (Langton, 1999).
Threats to Britain's turtles
When possible, the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) and the Institute of Zoology (loZ) carry out post-morterns (necropsies) of UK turtle strandings to discover the cause of death and collect biological samples. This work is carried out under the UK Marine Mammal Stranding Project funded by the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR). Entanglement and drowning in fishing gear (bycatch) appears to be the main cause of mortality in turtles found stranded on UK shores. Furthermore, although leatherbacks have been caught in various types of fishing gear, 62% of leatherback bycatch records in the TURTLE database (where gear type is specified) involve turtles caught in shellfish trap ropes (Pierpoint, 2000). It is not known if this occurs by chance or because the turtles are attracted to the traps, ropes or buoys.
Bycatch is not the only threat to leatherbacks in UK waters. In 1988 the world's largest turtle, a 2.9 m long male leatherback weighing 916 kg, was stranded at Harlech, Wales after becoming entangled in fishing gear (Morgan, 1990). The necropsy of the 'Harlech' turtle highlighted another, more insidious threat. The turtle's gut was full of large sheets of plastic. Leatherback turtles feed primarily on jellyfish and appear to mistake floating plastic marine litter for their favourite prey. Once ingested, accumulated plastic can block a turtle's gut eventually leading to starvation. The SAC and loZ necropsy work has revealed that the digestive tracts of many stranded leatherback turtles contain significant quantities of plastic marine litter. One individual is believed to have starved to death as a result of plastic litter blocking its gut (Godley et al, 1998, R. Reid, pers. comm.).
The Marine Turtles Grouped Species Action Plan
In recognition of these threats, English Nature published the Marine Turtles Grouped Species Action Plan (SAP). The SAP is being implemented by a partnership of organisations led by MCS, the Herpetological Conservation Trust (HCT) and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the lead government agency. The partnership also includes English Nature, the Marine Turtle Research Group (University of Wales), Euroturtle, Marine Environmental Monitoring and the Cornish Wildlife Trust. The BCG is also represented (by the author) and will be consulted on some aspects of the SAP implementation.
One of the first projects to be implemented by the SAP partnership will be the development of a UK 'Turtle Code' in collaboration with fishermen and other sea-users. The code will build on the existing 'Turtles Codes' produced by SNH and the Countryside Council for Wales (SNH, 1997, CCW, 1998). It will be distributed to sea and coast users and will contain species ID's and protocols for dealing with entangled and stranded turtles. The SAP partnership will also establish a UK turtle sightings scheme and develop the existing TURTLE' database.
Although the SAP aims to enhance the conservation of all turtles found in UK waters and the UKOT's, the SAP partnership has prioritised the conservation of leatherback turtles in UK waters. Over the next five years the partnership will initiate research programmes to find out more about the origins, habits and mortality of Britain's leatherback turtles. The partnership will also coordinate a collaborative programme of research with the relevant UK fisheries to find out why leatherback turtles are caught in shellfish trap ropes. Building on ongoing MCS campaigns, the SAP partnership will promote public awareness in the UK regarding marine litter.
Some aspects of the SAP have an international remit. Little is known about marine turtle populations in most UKOT's and the SAP partnership aims to establish and support marine turtle conservation and research projects where necessary. Tourists visiting tropical holiday destinations are likely to come across marine turtle products such as 'tortoiseshell', made from the shell of the critically endangered hawksbill turtle. It is currently illegal to bring marine turtle products into the UK under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The SAP partnership will initiate programmes to raise awareness among British tourists of turtle conservation issues while they are on holiday.
Cheltenham & Gloucester plc have committed a two-year seed grant and may continue to fund the implementation of the SAP beyond 2002. In the meantime, MCS has initiated an exciting fund raising and educational initiative, Adopt-a-Turtle.
The programme was launched by MCS Vice President Professor David Bellamy at the London Aquarium in May 2000. Adopt-a-Turtle gives the public the opportunity to contribute to marine turtle conservation by @adopting' one or more of the six endangered turtle species. In return for a 12-month 'adoption fee', adopters receive a soft turtle toy and a fun, informative 'Adoption Pack' full of information about marine turtles and what the public can do to help. Proceeds from this scheme will allow MCS to continue their work with the SAP while lending significant support to marine turtle conservation and research projects around the world. Adopters also receive a free subscription to a bi-annual newsletter containing updates about the conservation projects supported through the scheme.
How to help With Cheltenham & Gloucester's funding and the proceeds from Adopt-a-Turtle, the partnership is well placed to deliver the goals of the SAP and make Britain's seas safer for our critically endangered marine turtles. But additional participation is always welcome and if you are a regular sea or coast user and would like to participate in a UK marine turtle sightings scheme, would like to find out more about the SAP or would like to Adopt-a-Turtle, please contact the MCS at 01989 566017.
If you find a dead stranded turtle in the UK, please call: Bob Reid, Scottish Agricultural College (Scotland) 0 1463 243030 or 0797 9245 893 Rod Penrose, Marine Environmental Monitoring (England and Wales) 0 1348 875000 Prof John Davenport, University College Cork (Ireland) ++353 (0)21 4904140 If you find a live stranded turtle in the UK, please call: RSPCA (England and Wales) 0990 555999 SSPCA (Scotland) 0 131 3390111 Prof John Davenport, University College Cork (Ireland) ++353 (0)21 4904140 Sightings of live turtles at sea should be reported to Rod Penrose 0 1348 875000
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English Nature (1999). UK Biodiversity Group: Tranche 2 Action Plans, Volume V - maritime species and habitats. English Nature, ISBN 1 85716 467 9.
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Testudo Volume Five Number Three 2001