A video recorded by a visiting American couple last week showed a loggerhead turtle with a rope around its neck in the water at the rear of a business in West End.
This video not only kindled outrage among eco tour operators, but also sparked an appeal for laws prohibiting such incidents to be enforced.
The Americans, who frequent the island, were taking a boat ride in West End on Tuesday, when they observed the turtle bobbing in the water.
After spotting a rope around its neck, they contacted their long-time friend, Keith Cooper, owner of West End Ecology Tours.
Cooper, who resides in West End, met up with the couple and returned to the location, but the turtle was nowhere in sight.
“I think whomever the gentlemen were, removed the turtle and took it to a place where they knew it could be slaughtered immediately. So, the turtle is not suffering being tied anymore,” Cooper said.
The ocean conservationist believes more should be done to protect the country’s aquatic resources.
In September 2009, the Fisheries Regulations governing marine turtles were amended to give full protection to all marine turtles found in Bahamian waters by prohibiting the harvesting, possession, purchase, and sale of turtles, their parts and eggs.
“I don’t know what rights they thought they had capturing a turtle, putting a rope around its neck and tying it up,” Cooper said.
“There is a law that prohibits the possession, sale and keeping of any sea turtle. It’s a national law. We should obey these laws whether we are
Bahamians or foreigners.”
He said if a foreigner came to Grand Bahama and was found in breach of a marine law, the foreigner would be apprehended immediately.
A court would hear the case and they could lose their vessel.
“So, Bahamians need to understand that the same laws that apply to foreigners also apply to us; therefore, we cannot arbitrarily go in the ocean and take whatever we want with no repercussions.”
Cooper said the laws must be enforced to conserve the island’s marine natural resources.
“We do have to do more,” he said.
“We need to step up our game as a marine conservation destination, as a touristic destination. We also need to reiterate, train and educate fishermen on the legalities. You cannot use illegal equipment, you cannot harvest out of season and, therefore, you know these rules apply to the nation.”
However, Cooper believes fishermen continue to break the law because there is no enforcement.
“There is no one actually patrolling the waters,” he said.
“The situation has gotten so bad, and the sea turtle incident just escalated it even more. It is out in the open now and I hope things are about to change.”
The regulations protecting sea turtles also prohibit the molestation of marine turtle nests.
The commitment to the conservation and preservation of these species while in Bahamian waters has been demonstrated by the introduction of protective measures and safeguards over the past two decades, starting with the actions taken to safeguard the hawksbill turtle in 1986.
Barry Smith, owner and operator of Paradise Cove Beach Resort, Deadman’s Reef, said he was troubled after viewing the footage of the distressed turtle.
“There is no turtle season,” Smith said.
“Having turtles in one’s possession is illegal. Selling turtle meat is illegal.
“The laws were put in place to protect the turtles and that is what we should be doing as residents, as Bahamians.”
Having had to call law enforcement officers for people catching the animals in waters off his resort, Smith said he does not condone the fishing of turtles.
In addition to the illegal capture of the animal, both Cooper and Smith said that turtles’ habitats are being ruined.
“The rising tides, development on the beaches and the removal of sand from beaches is creating a problem,” Smith explained.
“We have less and less sand now in certain areas where the turtles would normally breed. They can’t come back and breed, so that is going to reduce their numbers as well.
“So, it is up to us to protect them. If we don’t continue to enforce the laws and continue to preserve the beaches that they nest on, then it’s going to be a problem.”
The Department of Fisheries confirmed that an investigation has been launched into the recent illegal turtle harvesting.
While no arrests were made, L’Dina Pelecanos, assistant fisheries officer for Grand Bahama and Abaco, said the department is working with police to close the case.
“We are appealing to the general public that may have additional information to please come forward and report it to the Department of Marine Resources and/or the West End Police Station,” Pelecanos said.
“We must work closely together in this particular matter and other natural resources matters, as it is critical for the conservation of our marine environment. Laws exist not only to protect the marine environment, but also to safeguard our future.”
Pelecanos disclosed that the department increased land-based patrols within the last few weeks after receiving numerous complaints about illegal activities in West End.
“On Tuesday, June 14, we actively engaged in an operation with another government agency to help curtail some of the violations reported,” she said.
“We apprehended three vessels that were suspected of illegally using air compressors to harvest conch. We know the conch is very significant to our marine environment and it is considered an endangered species.”
Compressor permits are only issued during the lobster season, which is from August to March.
“We want to remind persons that it should not be used unless the compressor permit is in hand,” Pelecanos said.
“It is used for the capture of lobster and should not be used in water less than 60 feet.”
She added that the department not only wants to protect marine life, but also the well-being of the fishermen who would be penalized if caught.
“Currently, there is no limit on landing conch and no export of conch on a commercial scale,” Pelecanos said.
“So, there are measures that we are actively taking into consideration and discussing with fishermen ways that we can preserve the conch.
“The punishment for those particular violations is subject to the ruling of the magistrate. But as it stands at this time, the maximum penalty is up to $5,000 or one-year imprisonment.”